In the beginning was the bird. No, maybe not bird, more like a shiny tadpole, or cluster of glittering molecules dropped into a swirling void.
The beginning, at any rate, is far and away the best bit of Cirque du Soleil's latest offering, as a man in a faceless mirror-ball suit is lowered from the great domed roof of the Royal Albert Hall.
The Canadian mega-circus, a global brand with some 21 shows running simultaneously, is now straining to sustain the sense of novelty that once made it, almost unarguably, the greatest show on earth. Totem, with its anti-Creationist theme, has been "written and directed" by theatre supremo Robert Lepage, although the programme names no fewer than 11 additional creative directors of this bloated, overpriced spectacle (£300 to seat a family of four in the stalls).
As ever, the sheer extravagance is exhilarating at first. The arena of the great Victorian rotunda heaves with wriggling, squirming life forms: scaly green lizard-people, snaky silver people with an eye where their ear should be, and glistening frog-gymnasts who pop up from hidden trampolines. An intricate over-arching structure, like the picked-clean carapace of a turtle, provides gym bars from which multiple bodies rotate like fireworks pinned to a post, missing each other by death-defying slivers of time and space.
Very soon, though, and for the next three hours, the thrill subsides. There is a rough kind of narrative. A bearded Darwin figure, a red-skinned character called The Tracker and a human chimp wander wordlessly between the big-top acts, the scientist making jottings in a notebook. The trouble is, very few of these more or less traditional acts fit the Darwinian theme. A beach babe in a pink bikini does fancy pull-ups on ropes; a pair billed as the Crystal Ladies lies on their backs foot-juggling bath mats; a ludicrously eroticised couple on roller skates spin manically on the surface of a drum. It's hardly a scene from the Galapagos, and my guess is that Lepage had the struggle of his life to get the Cirque management to adapt and evolve (and patently failed).
Perhaps the monster has simply grown too big, too greedy, and finally eaten itself. With so many shows running at once, Cirque must be on the point of exhausting the world's stock of top gymnastic talent, not to mention funny clowns (Totem's pair are crude to the point of unwatchable). Gasp-making moments too are dismayingly few, the best coming courtesy of Russian tumblers who bounce in immaculate unison from springy planks, cheerfully knotting and unknotting their bodies along the way.
Best of the other acts is, interestingly, the homeliest: five tiny Chinese women on unicycles who flip metal bowls at each other and sweetly catch them on their heads – a throwback, in terms of charm and intimacy, to the early days when Cirque founder Guy Laliberté and his chums performed on the streets of Quebec. Now Laliberté is so rich he can afford space travel, and some of his holiday snaps of distant planet Earth appear briefly in this show. But even these somehow fail to instil wonder. With its cast of 50, its slick live music, its action-movie projections,Totem is all shouty outreach, and precious little connection.
To 17 Feb (020-7589 8212).
Jenny Gilbert sees the Royal Ballet submit to the ultimate test of Giselle