Saltimbanco, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prepare for take-off

Rhoda Koenig
Tuesday 14 January 2003 01:00

A man climbs a pole and flings himself at another, several feet away, holding on to it by his ankles – upside down. Sixteen acrobats climb four poles and hold on by one hand, their bodies parallel to the floor. They stay like that for a while. Twin girls share a trapeze that swings to the top of the Albert Hall. One sits, and the other vaults over her and hangs upside down, her ankles locked to her sister's.

If these descriptions make you want to rush to see such things for yourself, well and good. But if like me you wonder: "What's all this in aid of?" then you will not greatly enjoy Saltimbanco, Cirque du Soleil's demonstration of improbable athleticism. The production lasts two hours and 40 minutes, less a 25-minute interval during which we are exhorted to buy souvenirs, if we have any cash left over from an £8 programme that contains some colour photographs, best wishes from the Prime Minister of Canada, and many expressions of the troupe's philosophy ("Sublime and grotesque, sombre and afire, I entrance and mesmerise, fusing madness and wisdom, primordial chaos'').

Yet all I felt was nervous boredom. You may say that I simply don't belong at this kind of entertainment, but when the Chinese circus came here a few years ago I went twice, so delighted was I by its combination of remarkable skill and human scale, its moments of surprising exoticism, and its charm and beauty.

Here the performers, parts of an enormous machine, did not affect my heart or mind, only my stomach. There is a sequence in which people stand on a swing as it soars through a 120-degree arc, back and forth, up and down – as you may have guessed, I'm not very good on boats – and then fling themselves 30 feet into the air and somersault to the ground.

I also felt a bit queasy when our attention was focused on the arena floor, covered in turquoise and fuchsia blobs on a yellow background, on which acrobats capered in tights of wavy stripes in the same colours. The accompaniment, so highly processed that it bears as much resemblance to music as Kraft does to cheese, is in similar Eurovision taste, at best the sort of thing one hears in the background of a James Bond love scene.

The astounding feats alternate with comic scenes, and when I say they involve mimes I think that will be sufficient warning for the like-minded. But if not – in one bit, a clown is desperate to find a lavatory; in another, he nearly drowns when he's locked in a cubicle with a toilet that overflows. The merrymakers romp among the patrons, some of whom they haul on to the stage and turn head over heels.

On opening night one man – an exceedingly good-natured chap – was put through such a protracted routine that I thought he deserved a fee. The kids, of course, are ecstatic; my small companion was rigid with excitement during the show, gasping and clapping like mad. But I have to say that after the show, when asked what she had liked best, she said: "The man from the audience.''

To 2 Feb (020-7957 4090)

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