New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 7-28 July 2018
Astley’s Astounding Adventures, playing at the New Vic until Saturday 28 July, is a triumph of theatrical invention and storytelling. It portrays the origins of the modern circus with all its thrills, wit, colour, and sound — and warms our hearts as it does so.
In case anyone has missed an anniversary whose celebration has spawned a host of stunning entertainments, the modern concept of the circus began 250 years ago. And the man who started it all was born just along the road in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Philip Astley, the son of a local cabinet maker, had brilliant riding skills and larger than life ambition. Returned from the Seven Years War a dashing hero who captured an enemy flag, he set up a riding school in London for the sons of the gentry. Alongside, he gave demonstrations of trick riding. He realised that his audience was closer to the action if he rode in a circle, and chose a diameter of 42 feet for his ring because that maximised the stabilizing effect of centrifugal force. It has been the international standard for circuses ever since. Add acrobats, jugglers, clowns and other acts to fill the pauses between daredevil feats on horseback and the modern circus was born.
But don’t imagine you’re in for a history lesson. Staffordshire-born writer Frazer Flintham tells this story deftly, skilfully weaving together the evolution of the circus with dramatic themes in Astley’s life: his disappointment at initial setbacks (“Battlefields are very passé”), his ongoing feud with rival Charles Hughes (losing him his license to perform at one point), and conflict with his son John, on whom he comes to rely as a performer while also wanting him “To be the gentleman I was never able to be.”
Nicholas Richardson’s tall, handsome Astley is masterfully convincing. He has great heart – passion with a touch of naiveté — but also the rough edge of an ex-soldier who has a living to earn. These qualities are given beautiful physical expression in an aerial duet with Danielle Bird, who plays his wife-to-be Patty Jones. Both are actors, not acrobats, and the confidence and artistry they bring to this display is both touching and gorgeous to watch.
This confidence permeates the entire cast. They are so evidently enjoying themselves, when Michael Hugo plonks a hat on someone in the audience – or Andrew Pollard as Colonel West or King George III or a backyard hen, sitting in the front row with his broken leg up, does the same – we are entirely swept along in the gleeful pretence. Hugo’s clowning is a joy, all the way from his parody of an operatic recitative to his Norman Wisdom routine between two planks on trestle tops.
The cast of nine actors is joined by a troupe of four circus performers, who integrate seamlessly. On top of which, a quintet of fine musicians deliver an exciting, and appropriately melodramatic, score that drives but never dominates. The original music by James Atherton even includes a tune from the period piece Astley’s Hornpipe. Faz Shah’s violin playing is divinely playful. And at times, playfully divine.
The collaboration on stage is mirrored by that behind the scenes, with the programme crediting consultants for circus choreography, escapology, fire, and clowning alongside the usual creative team.
Bringing all this together and making it work is the firm hand of director Theresa Heskins. Her touch is everywhere evident, never more so than in the inventive ways she represents horses — from Luke Murphy as Billy the Little Military Horse who can count, read minds, and taps coconut shells, to costumed bicycles and suspended saddles that rise and fall dramatically. Her conceit of the Lambeth marsh where Astley starts his venture and punctuates his lines with a spitting squelch every time he moves is laugh-out-loud funny and sustained over three further entrances.
When I met her at the NoFit State Circus under the big top in Newcastle town centre last April, Heskins told me with a hint of concern in her voice that staging Astley’s Astounding Adventures was the most ambitious project she had undertaken at The New Vic. At that point, I suspect she was focussing on the technical challenges (galloping horses, swirling fire acts) in packing such grand-scale action onto such a small stage. But like Astley’s, this has been an admirably ambitious adventure from her first inkling of it several years ago.
Richardson’s Astley maintains his rough-hewn Staffordshire accent throughout the play. It’s a clever running gag that serves to remind us of his origins in Newcastle. Heskins’ grand finale is a beautiful swirling movement of circles on stage and above it: on the central circle of Newcastle’s theatre-in-the-round, on the ring that Philip Astley gave the world.