January: a time for greyness, abstinence and frugality, right? Not if Cirque du Soleil can help it. The billion-dollar circus has rolled into town once again for its annual British tour, bringing with it a riot of colour, contortion and choral music. And, on its freezing cold opening night at the Royal Albert Hall, a smattering of celebrities, too – including stars of the latest Strictly Come Dancing series and it-couple Jaime Winstone and Alfie Allen. This time, it's the UK premiere of Quidam, one of Cirque's touring staples which was created in 1996 and has been touring the globe ever since, playing to more than eight million people.
The show opens with a quintessential Cirque image as a headless man holding an umbrella strolls on to the stage. Cirque excels at these weird, eye-catching tableaux which turn reality a little topsy-turvy and which help to tell the story between the main attraction of its more traditional circus acts. In Quidam, these also include a besuited man with his head buried in a newspaper who appears to be walking on air and a young girl with an ever-growing bouquet of red balloons on a stick. That said, storytelling – though it is, along with the lack of animals and speech, the unique selling point of Cirque du Soleil – is not this show's strong point. Quidam begins with a lengthy introduction in which we meet our central character, a young girl, who, bored and frustrated by her home life and ignored by her parents is initiated into a weird and wonderful fantasy world by a faceless passer-by. Or it might not have been about that at all. I'm not sure.
No matter. You forget all about the plot as soon as the first act – the German wheel – gets going. This explosive opener in which a man in silver leggings, dreadlocks and a bowler hat careens about the stage like a demented, but very lithe, hamster in its wheel, is typical of Cirque. Each of the 12 acts – which range from fiendish tossing of diablos to gymnastic balancing on top of poles – begins fairly gently, gradually ratcheting up the pace and difficulty until it reaches the dizzy heights of what you might previously have thought to be physically impossible. Skipping, Cirque-style, for example, is not just skipping. It is group skipping. Very, very fast. Over three ropes at once. On a revolving stage.
Elsewhere, a man and woman unflinchingly bear each other's weight in a series of statuesque poses with unfeasible strength and grace; a gang in lurid facepaint sprint up ropes to the ceiling using only their arms; and, in the climactic "banquine" act – not one for the faint of heart – bodies are flung on to and from the top of wavering human pyramids like so many rag dolls.
Though these shows of physical prowess extract the most delighted whoops and gasps from the audience, Quidam also has moments of tranquil and memorable beauty. I loved the three gymnasts who swung and twirled from their hoops like spinning tops and the simplicity of the woman who entwined her body in two lengths of crimson silk hanging high above the stage, emerging from them at one point like a butterfly from its cocoon.
It's also a joy to have a live band on stage, adding atmospheric vocals and tension-increasing beats – and a clown who is actually funny. I particularly enjoyed his seduction of a female member of the audience in his imaginary car, effortlessly using fluid mime and the band's sound effects to hilarious effect.
It is an unusual theatrical experience to watch Cirque's athletic artists put themselves through their unimaginable paces and I would have gladly swapped some of Quidam's narrative longueurs for more of the spectacular acts. But you'd have to look a long way for a better cure for the January blues – or for a better inspiration to get down to the gym.
At the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212), to 8 February; then touring to 19 April ( www.cirquedusoleil.com)Reuse content