Theatre Snowshow Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
Wherever he goes, Slava Polunin garners hyperbolic praise. Perhaps in sly recognition of this, his show begins with the over-blown "big act approaching" music of a Las Vegas variety act and a show-off lighting display. But the stage remains empty, with just one crooked, Beckettian dustbin centre-stage. When the Russian clown does appear, he is shuffling slowly on from the wings, head down, his bright yellow-and-red costume sharply contradicted by the noose he is carrying. His attempt to hang himself is thwarted by the fact that on the other end of the rope is another noose and another clown (Angela De Castro), a darker, more tragic version of himself.

Slava Polunin is not the kind of clown parents have to grit their teeth to take their children to. He is more than just a sad clown or a red-nosed circus clown or a clever existentialist clown, though he is all of these things. He transcends all the stereotypes of clowning. One moment he staggers on, shot through with 4ft-long arrows, and performs a spoof heroic dying fall. The next, there's a knock at his door and somebody delivers a sort of Interflora woman, wrapped in Cellophane with a bow around her knees. At a loss as to what to do, he fetches a little vase and vainly tries to fit her into it. Noticing a bit of fluff on one of the drapes, he picks it off but it just keeps coming. Soon he is completely entangled in a giant spider's web and so, disorientated, he stumbles into the audience spreading the net until everyone in the stalls is enmeshed in synthetic gossamer.

This gives an indication of the wonders that will follow. Polunin is a magus of theatrical effect. After a second half that is gentle, slow and almost mesmeric, little bits of paper start to fall on the stage and the real snowshow begins. First he walks across a bare stage, his feet crunching in invisible, freshly fallen, frozen snow. Then he whistles up a wind: a bleak, wolfish, steppes kind of a wind. Suddenly the portentous crash of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana starts up, Slava grabs a huge white cotton-wool drape and wrestles with it. Then the whole of the back of the stage seems to burst open to the elements: light, smoke and snow rush in, blowing a blast of Siberia right into the stalls, up to the circle and even getting the bar staff at the very back of the auditorium.

It is simply and childishly thrilling, it fills you with innocent amazement, and it is lyrically beautiful. Slava Polunin achieves what clowns should and yet rarely do: he restores childish wonder in adults. After the blizzard has died down, nobody wants to leave the theatre. A thousand people forget everything and bounce three giant-sized balloons around the theatre. The transformation is complete.

n Booking: 0181-985 2424; 16 Feb-Mar 3

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