Arts: Circus - The trouble with being earnest

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, ROYAL ALBERT HALL, LONDON

IF YOU have booked a holiday next century to go and watch an inter-collegiate gymnastics competition in post-apocalyptic Smolensk, for pity's sake cancel it now. For a fraction of the price, a near-flawless simulacrum is available for viewing at the Albert Hall, going under the name of Alegria.

The circus troupe Cirque du Soleil is now an international touring multifranchise, so that what seemed sizzlingly avant garde in mid-Eighties Quebec has acquired the anonymous patina of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. We no longer expect elephants in a circus, but we might expect rather more astonishing feats of human physical skill than this uneven show provides.

Not that there are no wonders. A beauteous elf in a luminous green leotard does quite remarkable things with steel hula-hoops, spinning one around her toes, casually held above her head, while others snake round her waist and shins. And a bevy of tumbling acrobats (who, sporting unisex camouflage-netting bikinis, come over alarmingly like extras from Mad Max 3) perform synchronised bouncy falls and a snowboarding competition's quota of mid-air spins. But a man on a trapeze, in a spangly Spiderman outfit from which somebody has cruelly ripped the sleeves, does little more than swing about a bit.

The less-than-amazing Cube Man, meanwhile, pulls himself up on suspended rings while his toes carry, er, a big cube. A "Polynesian artist" spins a few flaming sticks around. At one point he gets a burning stick and then lights the other end. He then points at both ends of the stick, adopts an inscrutable grin and waits until the audience applauds.

One disappointment of Alegria is its po-facedness. Ordinary actions are carried out in a bizarre, debased ballet style, and there is a lot of pointless running about with stiff arms by the large supporting cast, who also fill in with bits of business such as wheeling on a bed and then, with unassailable logic, wheeling it off again. Occasionally an act is gently mocked: after the Fire Artist, a sad-faced clown played nervously with a candle. But the clowns, too, were uninspired, staying with hoary favourites such as a big ball down the trousers. One wannabe clown epic had a vulgar finale involving powerful lights and a wind machine, clearly catering for tastes dulled by Hollywood cinema.

The gigantism of the show's presentation, indeed, dwarfed the really good acts, which needed a more intimate setting. But Alegria did boast one unequivocally fine element: the music, an alternately melancholic, humorous and adrenaline-pumping blend of French tango, jazz and curiously affecting power balladry. Only in Francophone hands can cheesy string synthesisers still sound even vaguely cool nowadays.

Steven Poole

To 24 January. Booking: 0171-589 8212. A shorter version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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