These days, Cirque du Soleil hardly needs introducing. In the 27 years since it started out in Canada, the dreamchild of a Quebec busker, it has become a global brand, a byword for glamorous thrills, a marriage of circus and rock musical that relegates all memories of sawdust and elephants to a dim and parochial past.
Its selling point isn't just the Olympic-level gymnastics. It's also the rolling theatrical concept of each show, of which six are now permanently installed in Las Vegas while a dozen others tour the world. The stars may be 100 per cent human, but the settings are strange and wild: Angela Carter in the land of commedia dell'arte, a Madonna floor show touched by the spirit of Magritte.
The current offering to the UK is Quidam, seen once before in London in a big top in 2001, but now fitting snugly into the Albert Hall. The most startling addition to the great Victorian interior is a 120ft arc of overhead tramlines which serve to glide props and artistes into position, or release streamers of scarlet satin. It's a beautiful piece of engineering, as awesome as any activity below.
Quidam, the programme tells us, means "anonymous passer-by", and the most memorable of the freaks that drift around the show's periphery is a headless man in a raincoat. But perhaps the passers-by are the audience? The cumulative effect over almost three hours is to make you feel that you – sitting in your sensible shoes – are the oddity, in a world peopled by manacled harem girls, an Amélie lookalike with a bunch of ever-expanding balloons, and bodies that do things God didn't intend.
No old-school skill escapes a makeover. The standard girly aerial act is transformed by swathes of hanging fabric, Palestrina-like choral music, and ... a man, apparently without a stitch on, writhing his splendid musculature into a vertical, liturgical bal
let, complete with crucifixion references. The juggling act is a quartet of tiny disco-dancing Chinese girls with diabolos (surely not the tiny diabolo girls from 2001? China must have a constant supply). In an act called "Statue", two Titans of their sex mould themselves into an 11ft totem pole, head-to-head, no hands. And no strings. Nor does Cirque use safety nets, or even harnesses, apart from one lanyard clip in the vertiginous rope swing.
The clowns, this time round, are disappointing, however, their material relying on audience contributions. An extended skit in which punters are hauled up to play characters in a silent film has comic potential. But that's shot to pieces when it becomes clear that the victims had been heavily primed. Given the shining honesty of the physical acts, it's an odd thing for Cirque to get wrong.
An unexpected highlight is the skipping. You thought skipping was about someone jumping rope on his feet? This is everything but, including a man bouncing repeatedly off his buttocks, and a group skip-in with multiple ropes criss-crossed in the shape of a giant star. Oh yes, and then there's the spectacular tumbling. How do catapulted bodies survive without safety nets? Search me. It happens every year and it's happened again. I start by thinking Cirque du Soleil is too slick, too expensive, just too too much. And I end up in thrall to sheer physical endeavour.
Albert Hall (020-7589 8212) till 8 Feb; touring to 19 April ( www.cirquedusoleil.com )