Fictional orphans aside, there can't be many people in the civilised world who haven't heard about Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian outfit that has transformed an old sawdust spectacle into vampish, hi-tech fantasy. And there can't be many ordinary punters who would deny that yes, it hurts. It costs an arm and a leg - around pounds 40 a seat - if you want to be anywhere near the action. Yet that didn't prevent Saltimbanco from shifting 5,000 tickets a night. And already the prospect of the new show, Alegria, is jamming booking lines at the Royal Albert Hall. In fact Alegria isn't Cirque du Soleil's latest production, as Britain doesn't feature very large on the company's global plan. A newer one, Quidam, has already been seen by three million Americans, and another, Mystere, plays exclusively in Las Vegas. Can the Greatest Show on Earth replicate itself so many times and remain the greatest? On the evidence so far, it's doubtful.
Alegria - a Spanish word for joy - gets off to a creaky start. In the previous show spectators were terrorised into alertness by a gang of Venice Carnival hoodlums who clambered into loggia boxes and generally roughed them up. It was all rather sexy and menacing and made a satisfying connection with a theatrical past. But in Alegria the theme is unclear. We get a hook-nosed hunchback in a red tailcoat who hobbles on with a stick and mimes a demented cackle like a Disney devil. He turns out to be the evening's master of ceremonies, though it's never clear quite why it needs one, since cackling and hobbling is all he does. This show is choreographed to within an inch of its life and each act merges into the next without any help from this corny old crone or from the quartet of uglies who twitch about the sidelines with him.
The strongman carries off the twin contortionists, one on each shoulder, a pair of traditional Russian clowns trail on and off at intervals, and hordes of elaborately costumed stagehands-cum-acrobats fill any otherwise empty moments with complicated formation routines. Everywhere you look there's a gyrating 15-year-old dressed as a butterfly or a singer crooning into a microphone tricked out as a good fairy. This director's motto seems to be: if it moves, give it either a wig or a wiggle. Design-wise, Perrault's 18th-century fairytales seem to be trying to get a look-in, but this fine idea is swamped in the visual free-for-all.
Between all this hyperactivity, the named circus acts are oases of concentration. They may make you squirm, but the juvenile Chinese contortionists are, well, mind-bending. There's a sweet little Russian gymnast who spins so many silver hula-hoops she turns into a Slinky. There's an ex-Olympic athlete who poses like a Chippendale inside a gleaming cube strung 60 feet up, and there's a mass-tumbling act (using trampoline runways slyly embedded in the stage, whose climaxes go on and on like the best kind of firework display.
The item that best lives up to Cirque du Soleil's superskills reputation is the fire-dancer, a glistening Polynesian who grins from ear to ear while plucking up gobbets of fire in his fingers and popping them into his mouth like a Bacchus savouring grapes. He then appears to ignite both ends of a pair of juggler's clubs merely by dint of stroking them (now this is sexy) and proceeds to twirl them round his naked body until he is no more than a fiery blur.
But even this promethean pinnacle cannot persuade me that the sum gasp- count of Alegria matches that of Cirque's last visit. There are too many acts that are only so-so. The clowns are the greatest disappointment, not least because most of their material is lifted from Slava Polunin's Snowshow (which was playing at the Old Vic till last week, for goodness sake!), and they don't deliver it nearly as well. It turns out that Polunin is "clowning advisor" to Alegria. In other words, Cirque du Soleil has tempted him with enough cash to relinquish his act, howling paper blizzard and all.
Does this organisation know or care that half the Albert Hall audience may have seen it before? On the scale that is Cirque du Soleil Europe Division, my dear, London is a drop in the ocean. Like the pounds 40 you'll spend on the ticket, I'd hang on to it if I were you.
'Alegria': Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), to 1 Feb.