Extravagant. That's the word that best sums up Cirque du Soleil. That will certainly have been the word uppermost in the mind if yours was the debit card that covered the tickets (the cheapest are £41).
But it's also the only way to describe an enterprise that so deliberately squanders its resources. It's impossible to count, let alone register and identify, all the varieties of fantasy animal-life that slithers, backflips and pogos around the perimeter of the action at regular intervals in Cirque's current show at the Albert Hall. And beyond the backdrop of tall brass poles, a Chinese fairytale bamboo forest that screens the pipework of the venue's famous organ and provides something for the chorus to swarm up, there is yet more gymnastic activity, glimpsed fitfully in the distance: strong men working giant swingboats in a haze of red smoke. We have talent to burn, that's the message.
Varekei (a Romany word for "wherever", we're told) isn't new to London – it first appeared two winters ago – but it's one of the most persuasive presentations in the Cirque du Soleil canon, partly because, in not even attempting much of a story, it avoids the cloying whimsy that beleaguered the shows Allegria and Quidam. If there is a single theme it is that of human flight, which is especially apt when you know that company founder Guy Laliberté, who in 1984 was a stilt-walker on the streets Montreal, has grown so rich that last year he could afford to become Canada's first space tourist.
So, we have Icarus (the tall, pale aerialist Mark Halasi) dropping from the sky into ... wherever, indeed: a land that's part carnival-hued prehistory, part rainforest disco party. The seamless, atmospheric score (as always, performed live, though you're mostly unaware of this: it sounds just too studio-perfect) is a smooth patchwork of klezmer, calypso, samba, Eurovision, Carmina Burana-style choral blasts and Asian melismatic song. Wherever, whenever, whatever .... The words of the songs, delivered as if they mean something, are nonsense, a babble that needs no translation. Given Cirque du Soleil's global reach, that may be strategic, but it's also emblematic of the brand's glossy emptiness.
All the memorable content comes from individuals, but you won't find out who they are unless you cough up another £12 for a programme. (If the Royal Opera House can supply free cast sheets, why can't Cirque du Soleil?) Although it's fashionable to say that all Cirque shows are alike, in fact the company goes to a great deal of trouble to bring novelty to familiar disciplines. Yes, Icarus is an aerial act, but performed inside a net, variously scrunched into service as a rope, spread out as a climbing frame, or used as swaddling as a spider might bind a fly. This is lovelier than it sounds, strung up high in gleaming white.
The two contrasting clown acts are a long way from red-nose jobs. Bradley Denys is a Robinson Crusoe with grass growing out of his pants. The duo of Steven Bishop and Mooky Cornish is an inept Butlins magic act, he a preening Latin maestro who cannot keep his assistant in check, she a plump silly cluck who repeatedly brings the house down with her inability to remain upright in her shoes.
The ah-factor, and there is always one, is provided by three disturbingly small Chinese boys who, with an expertise belied by their apparent age (five or six?), twirl skull-threatening metal objects joined by a length of string. Cirque refuses to divulge the ages of its performers. One can only trust that there are regulations to protect these little guys.
As usual, though, it is the projection of human bodies through great tracts of nothingness that proves most inspiring. Stand up, or rather, hang in there, British identical twin strap-swingers Andrew and Kevin Atherton. Sleek and sinister in their hi-rise leather trunks and shinpads, curiously coiffed in Amy Winehouse wigs, the brothers swoop about Prince Albert's great barn-interior like the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings – terrifying in their cruel disdain of earthlings, majestic in their appetite for air and space.
Circus of the sun? I think not. This is the thrilling stuff of outer darkness.
Royal Albert Hall (020-7838 3122) to 14 Feb. Trafford Centre, Manchester, 25 Feb to 21 Mar. Cirque du Soleil returns in May to tour eight British arenas with the show 'Saltimbanco'