REVIEW: Winter Circus 2018

The big news with Ken Fanning and Tina Segner's Winter Circus this year is - they've gone topical. As with the best Christmas entertainment in Belfast, they have added a dab of contemporary relevance to what is already an exciting, innovative and often very funny feast of trapezes, tightrope-walking, hula hoops and slapstick underneath the Big Top in Writers' Square.

However, tonight the Cathedral Quarter circus will have to make do without its youngest performer. Segner's four-year-old son Kasper had been set to follow in his mother's footsteps right in front of us on the night of this great gala opening – but they couldn't haul him away from his PlayStation.

Never mind. Local celebrity Neal McClelland from Cool FM has stepped in – and he does so in quite an astonishing manner, performing a Harry Houdini trick of wriggling out of a stray jacket, upside down, while suspended over an Asbestos mat.

But in discussing McClelland, I'm getting ahead of myself and the foundations for this Winter Circus's success. The product of Fanning and Segner's highly regarded Tumble Circus, also starring their colleagues Angelique, Henrik, Ally and Bucky, this holiday season's mini extravaganza begins with a bit of tongue-in-cheek advice – to ditch our "plastic" and "boring" iPads for something "extraordinary, special and spectacular".

In other words, why sit in with something monochrome in your lap when you could be out there enjoying something more colourful? Like, say, the circus? And they go several steps further, prancing around on stage in an attempt to "destroy" the iPad with a giant plastic sledgehammer and later "TNT" before "the police" dash in from offstage not to diffuse the madness, but add to it. It's not a bad warm up at all. Especially when the tent is virtually packed out.

Theatre then merges with tightrope-walking for the story, read out in voice-over, of a cat named Kevin and a troubled girl called Deirdre. The latter is brought to life by Angelique in a series of instinctive physical movements and emotive gestures on the tightrope. While Messer Chups' "Twin Peaks" plays and Deirdre's story of missing out and confusion is heard, Angelique reacts bravely, going so far as to perform blindfolded and in heels as the song escalates in loudness and tempo. It’s a delicate and therapeutic balancing act for one’s inner and outer being.

After McClelland's moment comes and goes, the first of several comedic and musical interludes follows, a costumed Bucky singing songs while Fanning tries to haul him off the stage. (Again, it's tongue-in-cheek.) These accompany the impressive sight of Henrik and Ally's balancing act, four hilarious "poodles" from Ballyhackamore (let's just say that playing dress-up was probably the only, and best, way to get performing animals) with enough back flips, roll overs and tumbling to put a smile on anybody's face, and the startling appearance of Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster on the trapeze. Or rather, Fanning and Segner respectively, effortlessly merging light political humour with acrobatics. At least until their wigs fall off.

The light political humour gets a little heavier with "The Brexit Negotiation Process", our performers donning political costumes to run around and throw dossiers in the air to the sound of Maxwell Davis' "Super Chase". It's like the 1960s Batman TV series except the punches it throws are not in the name of slapstick, but satire, albeit of the light-hearted sort. Light-hearted enough to fit in with the spirit of any quality circus, and indeed the Winter Circus itself - the going may yet get a lot tougher, so how else to face it but with a smile. And with the wind howling outside and a forthcoming wind of change set to possibly sting us like scorpions, you can't say fairer than that.

Simon Fallaha

The Winter Circus runs until January 1 2019 in Writers' Square, Belfast.

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