Gone are the days when a trip to the circus would mean marvelling at what the animals could do. And that's a good thing. Because now we can marvel at what the humans can do, and surely that's much more amazing than watching a poor elephant stand on its hind legs or a horse roll over?
The talent on display from Cirque Berserk is jaw-dropping, as it tells us in its publicity. You have everything from acrobats to knife-throwers, from stunt motorbike riders to clowns. The only obvious thing missing is a strongman, but then I suppose watching a steroid-pumped behemoth lift six times his body weight probably isn't as entertaining or impressive as it once was.
When I go to the circus I want to be amazed, I want to have to question what my eyes are telling me. And you certainly get plenty of those moments at Cirque Berserk. By far the most impressive act for me were the stunt bikers. The first half closes with two of them whizzing around at 60mph inside a huge metal Globe of Death, narrowly missing each other but never getting close enough to cause catastrophe. But it left my heart in my mouth, and is a fantastic way to end Act 1. The riders return for the finale of Act 2, however, and the tension is ramped up further than I could have imagined by the addition of more motorbikes and even a human being. All inside one small metal globe. The roar of the engines and the smell of the petrol makes this a very immersive experience, and from where I was sitting five rows back, also very thrilling.
Also impressive is the heart-stopping knife-throwing act. When I saw the diminutive, top hatted gentleman waddle on with his cat o'nine tails I just thought he was going to be a ringmaster figure, directing other acts, but when he got his blades out I genuinely started to get a little stressed. And yes, he threw a number of large knives in gut-wrenchingly quick succession at his courageous assistant. And you know what? She smiled all the way through. She carried on smiling, even when she was strapped to a turntable and spun round as the ringmaster threw mini axes at her. Luckily - and of course - he missed her, but when a couple of the blades didn't lodge into the board fully and fell to the floor, it did make me wonder how much pain these people have to go through to get this good.
The acrobats are fine entertainers too. The show opens with tumblers making all manner of shapes by climbing on and up one another, and while it's not the most thrilling opening to the show, it's still impressive. More impressive are the bare-chested gymnasts who jump 20-30ft into the air off springboards, across a stage which you don't think is quite big enough to contain them. But it does, and it's a pity these chaps aren't on a little more often.
There's also a contortionist climbing out of a giant bell jar, a giant Transformers-type robot who shoots fireworks from his arms (a deliciously brief but impressive addition to the line-up), leggy trapeze artists spinning around and holding on to silk sheets by their little toes alone, a spine-snappingly bendy lady who can use a crossbow with her feet, and a duo who are able to balance one another on their heads. This last act is one of the least thrilling of the night, but still... I'm not sure I could do that.
There's even a mildly David Lynch moment in the show, at the top of Act 2, when a giant owl hovers over the stage while limbo dancers nudge themselves under ever lower rods of flame. Again, impressive stuff, but I'd like to have seen a bit more of this quirky presentation style throughout. The owl was beautifully unnecessary, as was the moment when a muscle-bound acrobat comes on wearing a life-size horse's head. It was a lovely added amusement, as is the rousing musical score, which truly adds so much to the spectacle you see on stage. It's like dance music for The Lion King.
Another nail-biting turn comes from a long-haired gentleman with what I can only describe as "whippy things". I'm sorry, I have no idea what the proper word is for them, they're like whips with balls on the end and he swirls them around his head in a smudge of death-defying speed, dancing the flamenco to the beat the whips make as they crack against the wooden floor. Hard to describe but fantastic to watch, especially when he and his assistant set the whips on fire and become a blur of flame - until they spin them so fast the fire blows out! As I say, tricky to sum up but unforgettable once seen. I loved this act: he was like Shrek's Puss in Boots without the whiskers. Oh-yay!
Finally, yes, there is a clown. He's called Tweedy but doesn't wear tweed (that wouldn't be very clownish). Also, and mercifully, he doesn't wear traditional clown make-up, perhaps because so many people now find it unsettling, and also because it lets you see the artiste's facial expressions so much better. I'm a lover of physical comedy and while Tweedy seemed a little too well-rehearsed he was still funny and endearing, which is precisely what a clown should be. I've seen testimonials claiming Tweedy is the best thing about Cirque Berserk, but I question this: for me, the primal feelings of fear and amazement you get from watching the stunt riders, the knife-thrower and the whippy man is what makes this show something special. The ideal day out for the whole family.
Performed at Rhyl Pavilion, February 26 to 28, 2015. Cirque Berserk is on tour around the UK, visiting Swansea, Stoke on Trent, Southport, Lowestoft, High Wycombe and Birmingham over the next few weeks. See cirqueberserk.co.uk for details.