REVIEW: Circus 1903, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre ✭✭✭✭✭

Ray Rackham and his son Barnaby review Circus 1903 which has returned to play this festive season at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank.

Circusa 1903 review Southbank Centre London
Circus 1903 at the Southbank Centre. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Circus 1903
Royal Festival Hall
Southbank Centre, London
Book Tickets – Book Now and save 47% on Circus 1903 Tickets

Circus 1903 has returned triumphantly to the Southbank, in a production that at least this reviewer is praying will become an annual Christmas tradition.

As the audience walks into the auditorium, they are greeted by Todd Edward Ivins’ evocative set design which – whilst remaining very much in the proscenium – actually removes the feeling of mid-century municipality that plagues the Festival Hall. David Williamson’s Willy Whipsnade the Ringmaster; possibly one of the most likeable human beings on the planet; amiably wanders through the aisles, talking to audience members as they settle and smashing down the fourth wall before the festivities begin.

Circus 1903 Royal Festival Hall
The Wheel of Death in Circus 1903. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Evan Jolly’s well-crafted score introduces the dozen or so acts that are there to entertain, and acts as a well-woven tapestry of awe inducement; there are buttons to the end of musical phrases that punctuate the thrilling moments occurring on stage, giving the audience enough of an indication as to when to ooh and ahh, and importantly applaud. The acts themselves are a cross between carnival, vaudeville and jamboree; and work in astute compliment. Francois Borie’s tongue in cheek, traditional baton juggling sits side by side with Ganbayar Munkhbat and Andryei Batbokd who juggle instead with bodies. Rokardy Rodriguez’s balancing act had most of the audience looking through their fingers, and Senayet Asefa Amare’s contortionist is a sight to behold. But the stars of the show will always be the beautifully rendered puppet elephants; a cross between War House, Jim Henson Imagineering and marionette style manipulation. So beautiful are the scenes with the Elephants, you feel you truly are witnessing the celebration of the relationship between trainer and beast. The puppetry is the icing on a cake that absolutely embraces the form and the period.

Southbank Centre London
Peanuts in Circus 1903. Photo
: Dan Tsantilis

More than one tear was shed during a quietly beautiful moment between Williamson and a child from the audience, after what can only be described as a rambunctious escapade with a puppet raccoon; where the Ringmaster whispers that the child should always try to “be the best ‘you’ you can be, and you’ll fill the world with magic”. A wondrous message during the most wonderful time of the year.

The simplicity of Circus 1903’s concept, together with the detailed intricacy of its execution is stunning; and whilst we know that we’re never that far away from the Southbank (of the children called up to join Williamson, we had two Matildas and an Indigo), we feel transported to a magical place and time that only usually exists in our daydreams. A perfect production in every way which I hope will grace the Southbank for Christmas 2020!


I loved Circus 1903 so much I asked my daddy to buy tickets for another show before Christmas. It was so funny when the Ringmaster brought children up from the audience to be in the show. Queenie and Peanut (the Elephants) were brilliant, I thought there were real Elephants. Everyone should see this show!

Christmas Southbank Centre
Queenie and Peanuts in Circus 1903. Photo: Dan Tsantilis
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