Cirque du Soleil needs little introduction. In the 20 years since its grungy genesis at a Montreal street festival, the company has become a global brand, a hi-tech phenomenon relegating the circus of sawdust and animal dung to the compost heap of history. Acrobatics are the focus, but the settings are sexy and wild. Commedia in the guise of a rock musical. Madonna meets Mr Punch.
So far, so fabulous, but on its eighth visit to London and with its fourth new show the company is struggling to ring the changes. Dralion - successor to Saltimbanco, Allegria and Quidam - has been running a good 15 minutes before a note of music is played or a chink of set revealed. All this time the structure is draped in dust-sheet, while a trio of clowns work the crowd in time-honoured fashion.
Some things don't change. A woman, arriving late, has a veil plonked on her head and is paraded to her seat to the tune of "Here Comes the Bride", hummed by the audience. Some poor soul from the stalls is yanked on stage to read the opening announcements with a peg on his nose. Later, he's picked on again, losing his shoe, his shirt, and very nearly his rag, to great waves of sympathy and thank-God-it-isn't-me relief from the floor.
The illusion of spontaneity works a charm, as it did in the earlier shows, so why ruin it all later by revealing the man to be a plant? It suggests to me a director scrabbling in the bottom of the barrel for novelty. But someone should have told him that making the audience feel stupid and gullible will never be a good idea. Nor will breaking the magician's cardinal rule never to reveal how a thing is done. We are the ones with egg on our faces, and the clowns' credibility never recovers.
The unique selling point of every past Cirque du Soleil show has been its seamless theatrical concept, its rolling choreographed flow, its dazzlingly impressive kit. In all these Dralion is up there with the best. The set, revealed amid a factory-load of dry ice, is a vast perspex-and-steel coliseum, with mesh sides to which mountaineering bodies cling, walls wide enough to hide the orchestra, and arches through which angels warble the carefully incomprehensible non-lyrics which are the nub of Cirque's musical style.
The show's title, Dralion, is never explained, though I guessed at a composite of dragon and lion, such as appears in Chinese New Year parades. The general flavour of the show is oriental, thanks to a preponderance of acrobats from China. But the theme is stretched - somewhat creakily - among the non-Chinese stage extras to include a zulu in yard-long dreadlocks, a fake Indian dancer, a fairy in blue spangles, and a furry-legged reject from Lord of the Rings.
As we have come to expect, production values are tip-top, the costumes fabulous, the choreography faultless, the music slickly performed, if bland - this despite it featuring a 25-stone falsetto looking like Mike Tyson in an opera gown. Yet the sense of organic development within the show is strained, and some of the more outré characters superfluous. I found myself irritated by the cheesy wafting of the dancing extras, where in previous shows they had been functional as prop movers. Perhaps Cirque's famously military stage management has become too efficient for its own good.
As for the acts themselves, yes, they can make your eyes pop, though the effort of finding still more impossible feats for the poor human body to pull through is beginning to look perverse. As the sixth girl was catapulted to the top of a human tower of five young Chinese girls, my eyes were on the 15-year-old at the bottom. Reflecting on the fact that a child was bearing five times her own weight for our amusement left me rather less amused.
Best are the moments of simple beauty, such as the soaring aerial duet suspended by 50-foot lengths of blue satin. Overall, though, the emphasis on group work in Dralion comes at the expense of personality. Teams of tumblers diving through hoops, teams of girls on pointe balancing on light bulbs, teams of people free-falling from trapeze to the relative safety of someone else's ankles - whatever the neck-breaking situation, you never really fear for those necks. And this is not just because the performers barely ever make mistakes, though they don't, which is eerie in itself. It's that they are anonymous, unreal, and this show takes no steps to make them less so.
Some will argue that a certain degree of dehumanising is inevitable given the scale and type of spectacle, and a venue such as the Albert Hall. I'd say Cirque du Soleil ought to try harder. What could and should be a celebration of humanity is beginning to look just a little cynical. But hey, if you want to save your money and see the body as Art there's a great mime festival all over town next week. And if you've got the shekels and are new to the Cirque experience, Dralion is still going to look like the greatest show on earth.
'Dralion': Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7838 3122 or 0870 380 0020), to 13 FebReuse content