Just the sight of it gladdens your heart and puts a spring in your step: not far from the sea-front in Portsmouth, lorries and trailers have colonised a large portion of sun-kissed common space. In the middle is a mighty big top, the word Zippos spelt out in a blaze of light-bulbs at the entrance.
Yes, the circus is back – coming, local lockdowns permitting, to a town near you in the nick of time to alleviate the squabbles and tedium of the long enforced school holiday, put some money in the pockets of international artistes brought to the brink of penury and slap a big smile on the face of anyone who loves the performing arts.
The “rebound” of Britain’s leading circus outfit (able to get back on its feet after the go-ahead was given for outdoor performances, under which category it technically falls) is inspiring to behold. For all the familiar candy floss and blaring music, Zippos is trail-blazing for others.
A straightforward lifting of tent-flaps allows the air to replenish between eight and 10 times an hour; facemasks are optional. Spacing has been introduced between rows – with some gaps between seats too – reducing the capacity to 400. Unlike the recent socially distanced, indoor pilot performance at the Palladium, though, it doesn’t remotely feel like the Mary Celeste, an intimacy lingers. For all the prior “deep fogging” too, sterility is kept at bay; even the customised hand-sanitiser pumps at the entrance look like part of the fun.
Above all, this is a show – about two hours all in – that flies the flag for living in the moment, seizing chances and taking the plunge – an antidote to public caution, a shot in the arm for our locked-down sense of adventure. The physical risk-taking begins in a modest way: after a welcome parade from the near 30-strong troupe to Elton John’s I’m Still Standing, a half-dozen lithe “Timbuktu Tumblers” execute acrobatic dives through hoops. Then the ooh-ah factor rises rapidly.
English aerialist Rosey Delarue executes a vertiginous upside-down walk, swing-stepping from foot-strap to foot-strap; harnessed she may be but the skill is palpable. With a fierce crack of a whip, booted and bulky Czech he-man Toni Novotny, reputed to be one of the fastest knife-throwers in the world, sets about whizzing daggers within inches of his grinning wife Nikol, upping the danger-level with a flaming set of blades that threaten to barbecue her as she whirls round on a board.
What could be the piece de resistance – the “Globe of Speed”, in which three dashing Bulgarian bikers enter a metal-grilled globe one by one, becoming a hornet’s nest of engine noise and blur of man and machine dicing with collision at high speed – is merely the first-half climax. One of the trio – Ivan Mladenov – is later joined by another countryman, Nikolay Karakolev, to tread inside and out of what look like a pair of giant hamster-wheels, oozing 007-like nonchalance as they reach the top of the arena without wires, executing repeated free-fall motions.
Elsewhere there’s deft foot-juggling, charming clowning (no, really), a demented carry-on with fast-whirring metal bolas (courtesy of a strutting showman from Argentina) and a pervasive air of old-fashioned wonder: Nia Jones and Stephen Harrison achieve a simple tingle-factor through some magically fast costume-changes.
This is one of the only shows on at present, but even in a normal year, it’d still be one of the best, it’s so full of life-affirming zest. Right now, it’s unmissable.
Tours to October: zippos.co.uk