Circus 1903 – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I have experienced many forms of circus over the years. From the classic Cirque du Soleil to cabaret circus and various shows at Melbourne Fringe and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but I have never experienced anything like Circus 1903 and its easily the best representation of the genre in its most authentic form.

Playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, Circus 1903 takes us back in time to, you guessed it, the year 1903, the golden age of the circus. Back then, the United States of America was undergoing a transformation with the expansion of the rail industry, taking advantage of the new form of cross-country transport and the travelling circus grew in popularity.

Now in 2024, the circus has evolved with technology, but sometimes not for the better. Circus 1903 takes us back to where it all began with an exhilarating, wholesome and passionate production, complete with extraordinary puppetry.

I’m not going to lie, I was sceptical. How on earth can a circus that takes place on a theatrical stage and remain authentic? Oh, how wrong I was! As we entered the theatre, Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade, portrayed by David Williamson, was roaming the stalls of the State Theatre interacting with children and their families, and bringing huge smiles to faces. There was a sense of excitement building amongst the audience as we all settled in our seats.

Presented by The Works Entertainment and produced by Tim Lawson, co-created by Simon Painter and Neil Dorward, with Dorward doubling as director, Circus 1903 is utterly incredible. With the aid of a simplistic yet effective set design and costuming by Andela Aaron, I was indeed made to feel like I was back in 1903. Our ringmaster opened with some interactive comedy and a little bit of magic with a lucky child that he brought up on stage. Not only was this wholesome, it was also quite funny! The laughter and applause were infectious, and the show had barely started!

For those that have never attended this production before, the show is split into two halves. The first, a selection of side shows and acrobatics that would typically occur outside the Big Top. The second half takes place inside the circus tent, where even more astonishing acts take place.

First on the bill was The Daring Desafios on the Teeterboard. Oskar Norin, Karl Wiberg and Anton Persson performed an impressive display of acrobatics, jumping onto either end of the Teeterboard, launching each other into the air, achieving great heights and pulling of somersaults that had the crowd roaring in appreciation.

Throughout the entire show, there were many other unbelievable acrobatic feats. Including The Elastic Dislocationist, Mekdes Kebede, a World Record holding contortionist that had me wincing in awe. The Wizard of the Wheels, David Schnabel, on the Acrobatic Bicycle. Schnabel holds several world titles in his field and can perform tricks on a bicycle I never thought were humanly possible. Lucky Moon, Elena Suarez Pariente, performed an amazing arial performance whilst hanging from her hair. Yes, you read that correctly, her hair! Yoann Benhamou and Emeline Goavec as The Flying Fredoni’s on the Duo-Trapeze. Benhamou also performed a death-defying aerial display at the end of the show with Bungee Straps. A performance that is a first for Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre.

Other performances included an amazingly fast juggling act by Francois Borie as The Great Gaston. I’ve seen place spinning before, but never have I seen what Broie displayed with three basketballs! There was also a Strong Men display by Valeri Tsvetkov and Yani Stoyanov as Les Incredibles. The dramatic lighting at the back of the stage accentuated their physique that had me audibly gasp in amazement. They balanced and lifted each other in ways I have never seen and were both incredibly graceful as they conducted their routine.

Each of the performances mentioned had the audience gasping, cheering, applauding and are more than deserving of praise. Easily the best in their chosen field at are levels above anything I’ve ever seen. But there are three that stood out from the rest.

The Remarkable Risley’s, Mohammed Ibrahim and Hamza Seid, are exactly as their act suggest, remarkable. The Icarian Games is a form of circus performance that you may have seen before. Typically, the acrobat would lie on their back, flipping a table, umbrella or barrel with their feet. Well, Ibrahim and Seid have ditched the traditional props and flip each other! One lays down whilst the other performs almost hypnotic displays of acrobatics, spinning and flipping with only his partners legs to launch him. I would easily return to Circus 1903 just for this act alone.

A circus wouldn’t be complete without its animals, and whilst Circus 1903 does not have any real life animals, the show has the next best thing, a giant elephant puppet named Queenie and its calf, Peanut. Created by the same puppeteers that brought us War Horse, this detailed depictions are absolutely delightful. The extraordinarily talented puppeteers all work in unison to bring these creatures to life. Bravo to Mikey Brett, James Donovan Smith, Amelie Leroy, Nyron Levy, Chris Milford and Will Palmer!

The clear standout of Circus 1903 however, is the Ringmaster, played by David Williamson. Williamson speaks of the circus with so much passion and love that I couldn’t help but feel a wave of happiness each time he spoke. His comedy is wholesome and hilarious, and his magic is exactly that, magical. But the highlight of his performance is how Williamson interacted with and included children in the show.

Each time asking if they believed in magic, bringing a smile to a child’s face, and everyone else in the theatre. One segment saw five children chosen from the audience to perform a magic trick. The entire segment had me crying with laughter and at the end crying with happiness. Largely due to a little star named Oscar who absolutely stole the show and Williamson’s message to young Oscar which filled my heart as well as the packed Arts Centre Melbourne State Theatre with joy.

David Williamson is the beating heart of Circus 1903, and the show would simply not be as wonderful as it is without him.

Circus 1903 is easily the best version of a circus production that I have ever experienced. I laughed, I cried, I gasped in awe, was speechless in wonderment, and I was on the edge of my seat on multiple occasions. But most of all, I was overcome with joy. Circus 1903 is worth every penny! This production is a must-see experience and I most definitely will return to see Circus 1903 every chance I get.

The Works Entertainment’s Circus 1903 is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre until Sunday the 14th of January. So, roll up to the Arts Centre Melbourne website and book your seats before this travelling circus leaves town!

For more information and ticketing, visit:

Photography by Jason Lau.

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