Birmingham Hippodrome welcomes the big top this autumn when the circus comes to town.
Words: Diane Parkes
The international phenomenon Circus 1903 brings a host of amazing acts, daredevil feats, high wire stunts and life-size animal puppets as it takes audiences back to the golden age of the travelling show.
The extravaganza, which comes to Birmingham for the first time, is a perfect centrepiece for the Hippodrome’s 120th birthday celebrations because the theatre was launched as a circus venue back in 1899.
And Circus 1903 associate director Richard Peakman, who grew up in Kinver and knows the Hippodrome well, is delighted the production will take centre stage during this anniversary year.
“It would have felt special to bring this show to the Hippodrome last year or next year but actually this year is extra-special because of the Hippodrome’s birthday,” he says. “It’s amazing that we are bringing a golden age circus show to the Hippodrome which is celebrating its own anniversary.
“It’s like we’re recreating history with the sights, the sounds and the spectacle that launched the Hippodrome all those years ago and bringing them back. Now we’re paying homage to that golden age with our show in 2019. As a local lad, to bring a show which has toured the world back to the Hippodrome at this very special time makes me feel very honoured and very lucky.”
Richard became part of the creative team behind Circus 1903 at its very beginning, working with director Neil Dorward who he had first known when they were students together at the Italia Conti Academy in London. The two had built up successful careers in theatre before collaborating on a circus show in China. Then Neil had the idea for Circus 1903 – and he and the team had a clear vision for the show.
“We were really keen to transport audiences back to the golden age of circus when the circus was the biggest attraction of its time,” Richard explains. “There was no TV, no cinema, no theatres, no sports games – circus was a combination of all those elements. We wanted to capture that bygone era.
“So we deliberately shied away from anything which would be too futuristic. We wanted to take it back to basics and for our audience to have an appreciation for these amazing circus acts. There are no gimmicks, no special effects, no filter – what you are seeing is the trapeze artist balancing on that high wire or the juggler spinning those clubs. You are watching a lifetime of dedication packed into an act of a few minutes.
“And we wanted to ensure it was lavish. Money was so tight in the 1900s and yet circus costumes and sets were so extravagant and flamboyant – we really wanted to capture that with exquisite costume design and sumptuous sets.”
Recreating that age of the big top meant looking for a new way of incorporating animal performers.
“We wanted to feature something which was so synonymous with turn-of-the-century circus but obviously these days we wouldn’t use real elephants,” says Richard. “It was the brainchild of our creative producer Simon Painter to incorporate puppetry to bring animals back to the circus. Simon had seen War Horse, which is on everyone’s radar for just how breath-taking the puppets are, and he said we should have the best. And so they created two elephants for us – a mother and baby.”
When it came to choosing the acts, the team again wanted to ensure they were authentic to that early age of the circus.
“We did a lot of research,” says Richard. “I bought this humongous hardback book which documented circus from its early origins right up to now. We were really keen, where possible, to have acts whose very early origins were present in the circus circuit at the turn of the century.
“We have a booker who literally trawled the world and came back with a collection of the weird and the wonderful and then we had lots of films submitted by performers and we went through those looking for the most breath-taking acts.”
Some of those acrobats, trapeze and high wire artists, contortionists, jugglers and a larger-than-life ringmaster have remained with the show since it was premiered in 2016 but the team are also always on the look-out for new talent.
“We are a period piece but we also need to evolve within those parameters to ensure we are fresh, exciting and current and have something new to offer audiences,” explains Richard.
The show’s name pays homage to the age of the historic Barnum and Bailey circus company which launched the extravaganza known as The Greatest Show on Earth. This is the same P T Barnum brought to life by Hugh Jackman in the cinema blockbuster The Greatest Showman. Although Circus 1903 pre-dates Jackman’s film, Richard says the movie’s popularity has helped re-ignite interest in the golden age of circus.
“I absolutely loved the film and, having worked so closely with our production, I was curious to see what they would do with it,” says Richard. “I think it has pulled up the curtain on a piece of history and it’s definitely sparked people’s imagination so they want to see that kind of show for themselves. I think people have seen the film and thought ‘that looks wonderful and amazing and breath-taking’ – and it is!”
Richard’s career has seen him performing, choreographing, creating and directing a host of shows across the world and also in the West Midlands. Working for Qdos Pantomimes, he choreographed Cinderella with Julian Clary at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre in 2014 and he has been on stage at the Hippodrome in shows such as Fame and Oh! What a Night – but this is the first time he’ll have been in Birmingham as part of the creative team.
“I am so excited to be bringing Circus 1903 to the Hippodrome,” he says. “It’s such a beautiful theatre and I’ve always loved having the opportunity to come back home. My career is predominantly in London these days but my heart is definitely still in the West Midlands.
“My family will all be out in force to see the show and I’m also so excited because I’ll have the opportunity to bring my nieces Evie, who is five, and Sophie, who is two. It’s the first time they will have seen a circus and I can’t wait to see their faces.”
And Richard is confident that his nieces won’t be the only ones amazed at what they see.
“I hope that people go away with the biggest smiles on their faces having been thoroughly entertained and mind-boggled with what they’ve just seen. There’s something in it for everyone because of the plethora of acts – there’s humour but also spectacle. We set out to entertain people – just as circus did back in the day.”