The life story of the father of modern circus and Staffordshire’s very own, Philip Astley is being bought to life at the New Vic Theatre this July
As a local lass and pretty fond of the circus (who am I kidding I love the circus!), I was particularly excited to see Astley’s Astounding Adventures and all that it had to offer; the thrill, the tension, the giggles and the awe-inspiring acts that we have come to know and love about the modern-day circus. Add to that the fact that the ‘father of modern circus’, Philip Astley was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme – this show was right up my street!
And it didn’t disappoint. Astley’s Astounding Adventures has all the above and so much more.
The story begins in 1742 with the birth of Philip Astley and the narrator, Zipper, played by Michael Hugo (who, like many of the supporting cast, played several parts during the show) tells us the story of Astley’s life so far.
He was the son of a cabinet maker but Astley dreamt of working with horses and at the age of 17 he left to join Colonel Eliott’s Fifteenth Light Dragoons where he fought in the Seven Years’ War before landing in London to become a gentleman. There a young, ambitious and slightly self-righteous Philip Astley (Nicholas Richardson) meets an old friend Alfie Burrell (Gareth Cassidy) who seems to be a little keen on the gin and ‘looking for a woman with her own teeth… both sets’. Cassidy was brilliant and played the drunken, daft role to a T. The duo then meet Patty Jones played by the beautiful Danielle Bird. Now a trio, they go on to make the first indoor amphitheatre, a stage for comedy and live music as well as horse-trick riders.
The first circus is underway with everything you would expect the first ever circus to have – daft clowns, daring acrobatics and mesmerising jugglers. The clowns, in particular, were fantastic; simple but hilarious and a perfect injection of slapstick humour gaining all the laughs it deserved. The acrobatics and jugglers were impressive, although I think there were a few mistakes (!) but then that just made me feel like we were in fact watching the ‘first’ ever circus take place. After all, no show goes without its hiccups so the first one in 1768 (that’s 250 years ago) must have had plenty!
Unfortunately, success doesn’t come without its trials and tribulations, and Charles Hughes (Jason Eddy), the son of a blacksmith who briefly teams up with Astley, turns against him during one of their biggest shows – Hughes is after his own fame and fortune and to compete with Astley for the best amphitheatre. But, with the crowd expecting a duo horse riding trick, Astley begins to panic until Patty comes to the rescue! Every story needs its strong female character and Patty fits the role comfortably!
As I mentioned I love the circus and so I’ve been to quite a few in my time. I have seen tightrope walking in the heavens of the big top, I have watched double trapeze acts with no safety net or harness and I have witnessed both the Globe of Death, with three motorcycles riding in every which way you could imagine, and the Wheel of Death. All of these are dangerous and death defying stunts that leave you on the edge of your seat, but nothing prepared me for the absolutely stellar aerial silk performance in this production. It was the most beautiful and breathtaking performance I have ever seen.
Aerial silks drop from the ceiling and Philip and Patty undergo the most elegant, intense and romantic series of movements which gave me goose bumps. I could have watched them all night as they wrapped themselves in the silk and climbed up and over each other whilst all the time using their own body weight to lift, hold and counterbalance the other. It was truly a spectacular performance.
The show continues to move through the life of the circus clan and the astounding adventures continue – Astley and Patty marry and have a son called John. The feud continues between Astley and Hughes, but Astley’s Amphitheatre manages to keeps the upper hand largely down John, who is now known as the youngest trick rider.
All the cast in this production were outstanding. Every character added comedy value to the show while showcasing their monumental talents. Luke Murphy’s hilarious portrayal of Billy the Little, the headstrong horse was fantastic, and Andrew Pollard’s royal performance as King George III was remarkable, especially since his leg is in a cast after an accident during rehearsals!
The staging is simple but effective which means that you focus your attention more on what the actors are doing. There was impressive sound effects, mainly coming from the human body, laugh out loud comedy and excellent performances from all members of the cast and not forgetting the crew – this show is a must see!
The Show Must Go On…. until Saturday 28th July so call the New Vic box office now on 01782 717962 or book online newvictheatre.org.uk.