Saturday 23 January 2010

Varekai, Cirque Du Soleil, The Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, central London

Set in a magical forest, Varekai is performed in front of a host of golden poles that rise up from a large circular stage in the middle of the magnificent Victorian arena that is the Royal Albert Hall. A golden scaffold staircase winds its way high up towards a hidden platform from where, early in the show, a gleaming white, apparently fallen, angel is lowered gently into a clearing in the forest. The storyline revolves around the fate of this angel as he encounters the creatures of the forest - an extraordinary variety of trapeze artists, tumblers, jugglers, gymnasts, contortionists, clowns and even an athletic dancer on crutches. They all wear incredibly lavish and vibrant costumes and makeup, ensuring that the stage is often a riot of swirling colour. Throughout the two hour show, a man and woman sing powerfully and effortlessly in French, accompanied by a small orchestra playing sometimes haunting, sometimes uplifting melodies.

Some of the dozen or so circus acts will make you wince, others will give you vertigo. Some will move you, others will make you laugh. But they have all been choreographed to the nth degree and flow seamlessly into one another, so that it almost always feels like you are watching a highly theatrical musical. Even so, there is the kind of succesion of breathtaking acts of derring-do that you would find in a top-notch circus, although the spell is very occasionally broken by the odd fall or stumble. In one act, a performer lies on a chair with his legs in the air, balancing his partner's backside on the soles of his feet. He then uses his legs to propel his partner through a series of fast revolutions that might leave you rubbing your eyes in wonder. In another, three small boys hurl what look like double-sided yoyos high-up into the air, perform a series of tumbles, and then catch their projectiles before they crash on to the stage. The high-energy juggler is also great entertainment, performing some unusual tricks, such as propelling ping pong balls high up into the air from his mouth before catching them again between his lips. Later he spins four hats simultaneously all over the stage, catching each one before it hits the ground - the last one with a very athletic dive.

Baggy white knickers
The pace changes with the arrival of the clowns. In one of their acts, a young blonde, dressed in a ridiculously short dress, her chunky thighs and baggy white knickers far too visible, attempts to boogie in time to the jaunty music, but ends up stumbling and slipping all over the stage, while keeping a huge smile on her face. Meanwhile, her foil, a skinny male moustachioed magician, messes up magic trick after trick. Unfortunately, the other comic scenes don't work quite so well  - the two starring a bare-chested wood-nymph creature are creative, but a little too long and over-played - possibly the only significant flaw in the whole of Varekai. The show concludes with a squadron of men executing a dazzling display of leaps and somersaults from two huge Russian swings, making for a continuous swirl of activity and athleticism. A fittingly impressive finale to a very impressive show. 9/10