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The word ‘circus’ will conjure up for many memories of childhood shows: sweating under canvas, sitting on rickety wooden seats stacked to the roof, the smell of hay and sawdust in your nostrils, fingers sticky from pink fairy floss, and maybe dirty shoes from where you slipped off the timber plank stretching across the fields of mud on the way in.

You don’t get that with Circus 1903. This is quite slick and sophisticated, and very clean. We’re in a theatre remember. The Canberra Theatre, to be precise. It’s classic circus entertainment, taking us back to the so-called golden days. Days of charismatic ringmasters in top hats, men in long baggy pants and suspenders, and a flurry of talented individuals with unique talents and routines honed after years of arduous practice. The performers, gathered from around the world, covered the classic acts expected. There was an exceedingly quick juggler, a knife thrower, a woman doing things with her body that surely shouldn’t be done, and acrobats and people who swing and walk on very small things up high in seemingly impossible ways. The stage is small but the talents are the same, and the music is pumping to get you in the mood. And the couple of feats that didn’t go quite to plan the first time convince you that these tricks really are pretty tricky, and sometimes dangerous, and it’s a lot bloody harder than it sometimes looks.

The ringmaster is excellent, orchestrating the show and throwing in slapstick humour (which was lucky as the clowns were missing in action), all delivered in a resonant American accent to draw us further back to days of old and convince us we’re in a time warp. Or maybe the ringmaster is actually American. He drew in the crowd, occasionally calling for assistance on stage. Always amusing to watch someone else being the butt of the evening’s jokes.


I was accompanied by Miss Munchkin, aged two, who is already becoming quite the connoisseur of theatre, already this her fourth full-on theatre outing. She takes the experience very seriously and packs an entire backpack of ‘just in cases’. Like an extra jacket. And water. And snacks. And a dummy.

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She was suitably excited and mesmerised and didn’t take her eyes off the stage, clapping and cheering enthusiastically. Unfortunately that didn’t mean she sat still. She spent half her time climbing over me, picking my fingers and even stretching out her little arms and pointing her toes in synchronisation with the sparkling dancing lady on the high hoop. I think she has found her future career already.

While the glory of circuses of old may have been faithfully recreated, there are some important distinctions. There were humorous references to the freak shows and sideshow alleys of days gone by, but no longer do we stare in horror and wonder at the misfortunes or differences of others. Circus 1903, and many others like it, are now also minus the live, hoop-jumping big cats and dancing elephants of days gone by. This is a far cry from the circuses I attended as a child, the Bullens Brothers Circus followed by the Great Moscow Circus, with the gaiety of blue and yellow striped tents of biblical proportions. Then part of the fun was not only  what took place inside the tent but also wandering before the performance around the set-up satellite villages, or even on a special visit on another day, to look at the animals. To a small child it seemed fun to watch the lions pace in their cages at close range or to get quite up close and personal with the enormous elephants. Never mind those shackles and the miniscule enclosures. Small kids don’t see those. I didn’t even take much notice when I took my own children along to a circus many years later, but now I am guilt-ridden to think I helped support this form of animal abuse, still happening in many places. At least now in Canberra, circuses with large animals are banned, although the problem is not yet solved with different rules in neighbouring areas allowing a work-around.

But you are free of such dilemmas here. Instead of living, breathing animals, Circus 1903 brings to the stage a rather authentic mummy elephant and her rather endearing baby, Peanut, through the magic of puppetry. In this case, it’s large, lumbering puppetry at play, with terribly convincing rippling ears. Happiness all round.

Acrobatic feats and circus spectacle aside, the highlight of the show surely was the participation of four delightful children, selected from the audience to join the ringmaster in a warm and fuzzy and very funny interlude of magic and slight mayhem, with some irrepressible giggling in the case of one small one which became rather infectious.

Of course as the show drew to a close and trapeze artists flipped and somersaulted in a very confined yet impressive way on the scaled-down theatre stage, there came the inevitable and earnest cry of ‘weeee’ from the small one next to me (or was it on top of me?) An announcement, not a cheer. We managed the task with great speed, and arrived back just in time for the finale and to cheer along the performers as they took their final bows. Success!

We even got to meet little Peanut up close and personal at the end of the show for a photo opp in the foyer. And no mud to be sighted.

You’ve still got a couple of days to catch Circus 1903 in Canberra, or further afield as they tour the country.