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Bloody diamonds in a rough show

Do you like a bone-chilling thrill? Let Hillary Briffa tell you all about her experience of the gory Circus of Horrors.

October. The month of falling leaves and changing colours. When pumpkins are carved and black cats are given a second look. When one is forced to hurtle down Shaftesbury Avenue and leap red-faced into the Lyric Theatre box office, owing to train delays caused by the infamous storm of St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. To be fair, by the end of the first half of Circus of Horrors, I was starting to think the fact that opening night coincided with this Saint’s feast was little coincidence.

Let me backtrack a little. Circus of Horrors is celebrating its eighteenth anniversary and is currently the only circus show to be staged in the West End. I had heard so many rave reviews and comparisons with Rocky Horror that perhaps I’d set the bar too high in my own mind, who knows?

Certainly the night started well enough – there was a fantastic, eerie atmosphere in the dimly lit theatre, permeated by the menacing leers and intermittent cackles of audience members who’d turned up in full Halloween regalia to honour the occasion. From the moment the first strains of music began to hum, I was on the edge of my seat, as zombies literally clambered over the seated audience members to shamble onto the stage. Thereafter, however, my enthusiasm only peaked to that level at sporadic intervals.

When it comes to the circus, bigger is always better, and I felt that at times the actors didn’t quite do this, particularly in the final scene, which should have called for a far more emotive response from the ensemble.  Moreover, I felt the ‘horror’ aspect detracted from the performance rather than elevating it. I was never trembling in my seat, and the size of the theatre may be to blame. Being in the upper circle, it was hard to view stunts requiring close-up detail, so the highlight of the first half – watching a dwarf open a beer bottle with his eyeball, I kid you not – was mostly lost on anyone not in the first few rows of the stalls.

Likewise, much of the detail throughout the prolonged session devoted to the bizarre, talented and phenomenally courageous sword swallower, Hannibal Helmurto, was lost on the upper reaches. In spite of screens projecting some close-ups, these were still too small and unfocused to be clearly visible across the theatre, which was a tremendous pity.

My greatest qualm with the show, however, was the sound. There are a number of rock n’ roll songs, performed largely by the undead ringmaster, Dr Haze and his gorgeous assistant, backed up by the band, Interceptors from Hell. It was an excellent decision to have the band on an otherwise relatively stark stage, and their talented playing was a joy to watch in itself, but the sound needed some serious readjustment. It was extremely difficult to make out any of the lyrics to the songs, which may have added some clarity to the weak and confusing plot. Hopefully this is something that will be rectified for future performances, as it was one of the major disappointments of opening night. The story itself needs tweaking too, as it was very difficult to follow for anybody who did not buy the anniversary programme.

Regarding the circus acts themselves, I enjoyed myself most when the ‘horror’ was shirked for good old-fashioned fun. The Sword and Dagger balancer, the Mighty Michaela, was the saving grace of the first act, while High Table Balancer, Sergi Ben, put on one of the best circus performances I have ever seen after the intermission.

The whole show picked up a lot in the second half with the flaming acrobatics of The Voodoo Warriors, and I enjoyed the aerial acrobatics of the Sinister Sisters a lot more than their swing jig in the boring opening number. I must say, their habit of walking to the centre and faux-dramatically turning to look at the audience got old, very fast. Same goes for Dr Haze licking blood off his hands: once is effective – repeat something over and over and it quickly loses its sparkle.

If the sound is improved, I’d probably give the show three stars. I found the nudity scenes of the ‘strong man dwarf’ to be in bad taste rather than really adding anything to the show, and his scenes with the vacuum cleaner (you’ll know it when you see it… surreal…) dragged on for far too long as we cringed uncomfortably in our seats.

I know they won the hearts of British masses on Britain’s Got Talent, and I find it such a pity that the stage show itself was so underwhelming – there were some true diamonds in the rough there, but to succeed in the West End, one expects perpetual quality and not brief glimpses. Circus of Horrors… there is definitely some work that needs to be done to keep St Jude at bay.

Circus of Horrors is on at the Lyric Theatre until December 16, get more information here. Also, enter our competition to win a pair of tickets see Circus of Horrors for yourself!

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