Cirque du Soleil offers a bewildering mix of the bland and the flat-out terrifying. As so often with this company, the clowning and the framing devices are all bombast. The acrobatic acts, when at last we get to them, are so scarily brave that I wanted to watch the aerialists and the wheel of death through my fingers.
Founded in 1982, this French Canadian troupe has turned circus into an international brand. Across many shows, the exaggerated makeup and costume design give Cirque du Soleil a clear trademark, blurring the individual identity of its skilled performers. The company go on about celebrating wonder and freedom, but only within the narrow limits of corporate-sponsored whimsy.
The 2007 show Kooza, directed by David Shiner, shows Cirque’s split personality at its most divided. The central figure is a sentimental Innocent, who toddles through the world of the circus without a trace of spontaneity or warmth. Clowning is one of the main themes of Kooza, which means more dreary slapstick, more gurning, more people taken out of the audience than ever before. It makes this a very long show: almost three hours, half of which could be cut.
The other half is superhuman. Sometimes the Cirque du Soleil branding makes even its acrobats anonymous. This time, the rawness of human effort shines through. Solo trapeze artist Marion Verd may be weighed down with 1980s makeup and a pompadour mullet hairdo, but there’s nothing sugary about the way she flips off the bar, twists and falls before brilliantly catching herself.
A high wire team prance and play leapfrog across two tightropes. At this performance, the first time one jumps over his colleague, he slipped off the wire, grabbing hold just in time. After a moment to recover – a fellow acrobat patted his shoulder consolingly – he went back and did it again, flawlessly. Then the whole team went on to still more dramatic stunts: skipping ropes, bicycles, a pyramid on a bicycle on a wire.
The prize for insane bravery goes to Jimmy Ibarra and Ronald Solis, who perform on the aptly-named Wheel of Death. Two giant hamster wheels are held at the end of a turning bar; as the man walks inside the wheel, he makes the whole device circle. Ibarra and Solis start by running inside their wheels. Then they run on the outside, keeping their balance on a spinning wheel that is itself swung through space.
Gravity seems to be sitting in wait for them, ready to pounce. The audience’s gasps turn to actual screams when Ibarra and Solis start to jump and dive. I screamed, too: no amount of waffle about wonder could take the edge off that.
Until 14 February. Box office 0845 401 5034