With cutting-edge contributions from so many of the world’s greatest companies and practitioners, the Roundhouse’s annual Circus Fest is a brave, exciting and diverse celebration of international circus skills and innovation. This year it’s seen Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkör disentangle the psychological implications of the acrobatic double-act, a splash of Guinean street-dance-circus-fusion and the big-top by way of video-goggle VR immersion. What’s been missing so far is the seedy, low-rent, barkers and bastards world of the circus sideshow: the ballsy Barnum & Bailey humbug of human curiosities and feats of grotesque daring. Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow is an irresistible tribute to the fringes of the fair, an immersive experience that blends spectacular circus practise with lovingly researched and recreated penny gaff flim-flam.
Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive (surely the coolest archive in the world), is the inspiration and leading creative light of the Wondershow, and she has developed a free-roaming promenade tribute to the dying years of the sideshow. A circle of booths surrounds the Roundhouse arena, their painted hoardings boasting of the wonders of ‘The Headless Lady’, ‘Electra the 27,000 Volt Girl’ and ‘Cleo – The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl’, performers whizz past on unicycles and penny arcades and peep shows cluster in the corners. The hall echoes with the calls of barkers and the chinking of vintage pinball machines. At intervals, the arena falls silent as aerial performers spin through the air above and themed parades of fire-eaters, hoop-dancers and the strange denizens of The Insect Circus cavort for our amusement. There’s no narrative, save for a gradual escalation in the pizazz of the intermittent parades: you’re free to make your own way through the faux-fair, with a drink or a bag of popcorn in hand.
Though the parades and performers are of a high standard, and there’s some beautiful aerial work towards the evening’s conclusion, the Wondershow is really all about the sideshows. These short performances (the majority created by John Marshell’s Sideshow Illusions) make use of the same optical illusions and patent guffery that could be found at many an early-20th century fair. Some are spectacular feats of engineering that draw gasps from the crowd, others are laughable disappointments as thin and transparent as the wrapping of a greasy donut, just as they should be. Disappointment and disillusionment were staples of the side-show: the contrast between the hypnotic hoardings and the shabby interiors is all part of the world and par for the course. There’s a touch of the self-aware in one or two of the presentations, a wink to modernity, but in general the barkers’ patter has a pleasing ring of authenticity.
Johnson deserves considerable credit for his preservation and recreation of tricks and techniques that could easily have been lost forever. There’s a real charm to every booth, and it’s a treat for fans of vintage illusion, with a dash of Pepper’s Ghost (take that phantom-Tupac) and other infamous optical techniques. Another highlight is the Kingdom of Shadows, a peep-show compilation of risqué one-reelers from the era of silent sort-of-erotic-a.
There’s so much to see and do that you’ll be lucky to catch it all. While it’s possible to view every side-show, it would be better to wander where the mood takes you and let the barkers do their best to convince you to sample their wares. Don’t miss The Headless Woman (genuinely impressive) or The Mummy, don’t neglect the parades and do try the Dollirama, a creepy coconut shy where you can win a doll by hitting the Pope with a banana (‘bash that misogynist’, Miss Genie urged one child).
If there’s a weakness it’s only that the patter of the carnival barker is one developed over decades and finessed to an art-form, and though game, the performers at the Wondershow never quite nail it. They’re just a little too polite. In fact the entire evening is a sixpence safer than it really needs to be, there’s no whiff of formaldehyde or exploitation, and unlike the sideshow, it’s actually great value for money. Not so much sanitised as rose-tinted, this is nevertheless a joyous celebration of charlatanism with some top-class circus skills thrown in. Under the winning ringmastery of Miss Behave, the Wondershow is a gentle fleapit world, more Tim Burton than Tod Browning, but delivered with such ambition and care and layered with so many hidden treats and surprises that it makes for a thrilling night at the circus.
Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow is on at the Roundhouse as part of CircusFest12.