Zippos Circus review – the Magnificent Top Hat at Blackheath, London

Zippos Circus The Magnificent Top Hat

*For this Zippo’s Circus review, the company gave us press tickets for The Magnificent Top Hat*

Norman Barrett MBE must have seen a lot of changes over the 21 years of his career as Zippo’s Circus ringmaster. In the Magnificent Top Hat, Zippo’s latest show, there’s no sign of the clowns that earned the circus its reputation, when it began back in 1983. And gone are any dancing horses. This is all to the good. “Guaranteed no creepy clowns” said one parent in our school Whatsapp group, when casting about for people to accompany her and her daughter to the show.

But Zippo’s Circus still had enough old-school charm for us to be able to point out similarities to The Greatest Showman when we explained it to our son and daughter. New to circuses, the hit film is their main cultural reference. At Zippo’s the grace, strength and sheer brute determination of the performers shone through. Just like the characters in the film. And, because we live close to its current venue of London’s Blackheath, we approached the bright circus tent from behind, and caught a glimpse of the travelling circus caravans, where the performers’ kids played outside while their parents put on the show. These people really live their craft.

Zippos Circus 2019 - Paulo dos Santos doing aerial acrobatics

Paulo dos Santos flying through the air. Image by Piet-Hein Out.

There’s a neat little storyline running through The Magnificent Top Hat. Brazilian performer Paulo dos Santos, standing strong at 3′ 6″ tall, chips cheekily away at Norman Barrett MBE’s lofty position as “the world’s greatest ringmaster”. We first see Paulo trying to pilfer Norman’s top hat from a stand. He then pops up at intervals, coralling audience members into dancing on stage with him to the tune of YMCA, against Norman’s orders. Hats are a bit of a theme: multi-coloured top hats appear again at the end of the show, as bright and colourful as the varied circus troupe, which hails from places as far-flung as Cuba, Mongolia and Africa. And Paulo’s more than just a comedy foil. His skill as an acrobat was showcased magnificently during a turn on the high wire with Hungarian Laci Fossett.

Watching a circus with a seven- and a nine-year old is an illuminating experience. D and I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, when knife-throwing, contortionism, aerial acrobatics and juggling were regular features on Saturday night entertainment shows. But the reactions of our kids reminded us that there’s nothing like seeing these tremendous skills for the first time, in the flesh, with the whiff of greasepaint to accompany your candy floss.

“How did she get in there??” my daughter exclaimed, when contortionist Ebby arrived on stage, neatly tucked up inside a glass bottle. She declared aerial strap acrobat Jackie Louise an “amazing lady”. And the shrieks of laughter emitting from my son at the antics of Norman’s multi-coloured budgies, were priceless.

Zippos Circus Jackie Armstrong doing aerial acrobatics

Jackie Louise performing high above the circus ring. Image by Piet-Hein Out.

Something I hadn’t seen before, and which thoroughly scared me, was the ‘Globe of Terror’. Brazilian motorcyclists wheeled around each other, at 60 mph, inside what seemed an impossibly small steel ball. At one point, there were five of them, riding like the clappers upside down, and over each other’s heads. Although it was an impressive spectacle, I was relieved to be able to catch my breath when they stopped whirling just inches from each other, and rode out of the ball into safety. If nobody else in the troupe deserved a medal for bravery (which they did), then the Brazilian motorcyclists should be awarded several.

Creative Director David Hibbling, who also conceived the Queen’s jubilee circus, has come up with something rather special in The Magnificent Top Hat. It’s a circus for the modern age, without losing the charm of bygone eras.

Zippo’s Circus is touring England and Scotland until 27 October, including more dates in London. Ticket prices vary depending on the time, venue, and position. For more information see the Zippo’s Circus website.

If you’d like to read another of our circus reviews, check out this feature on the Chinese State Circus.

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