does not become fully alive until the Wheel of Death

In these days of perpetually circulating gloom, it is a joy to hear that the circus has come to the city. This Cirque du Soleil-style offering is becoming a regular festive feature on the South Bank and is pitching its tent for a third year. While there is plenty to admire inside this old-fashioned big top, the 2021 iteration is not nearly as smooth as the premiere production back in 2018. Some of the acts have an understated look, and on opening night there were several misses, falls and falls that you ever would see with Cirque du Soleil.

Director Neil Dorward takes a different grip than the Montreal-based circus maestro. While Cirque likes to tie his shows using whimsical linked themes that are very tiring, here we have Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) to fill in the gaps between stunts. Williamson fights bravely to make himself heard over rumbling recorded music and is allowed one too many interactive slots with confused children from the audience. He has a sharp wit and makes the adults laugh, but he keeps his welcome.

The idea behind Circus 1903 is that we take a trip back to the golden age of art form when Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth returned to the United States after a five-year tour of Europe. A central feature of entertainment at the time was a selection of exotic creatures, and this is ingeniously recognized via two delightfully articulated puppet elephants brought to life by a group of puppet masters working on the creatures of War Horse.

The larger beast, Queenie, maneuvered by three of them, has fluttering ears and soulful eyes. You have to keep reminding yourself that these animals are really only puppets, as otherwise it would be too painful to see them running around scared in all the hustle and bustle behind the scenes.

The height and width of the Royal Festival Hall stage are ideal for all kinds of acrobatic high jinx, but the soaring dimensions remain frustratingly underutilized. The evening gets off to a bouncy start, thanks to a quartet of performers on a seesaw, an object that looks like a playground seesaw, even though the jokes that unfold on it are anything but child’s play.