The circus is in town. And quite a circus it is.
Circus Abyssinia is the first attraction of London’s annual Underbelly Festival Southbank, which is now in its 10th year. You can tell that summer is coming when the big top goes up at the festival’s temporary headquarters near the London Eye.
The troupe has plenty of death-defying and spectacular stunts to keep an audience on the edges of their seats. What makes this a pleasure to watch is the enthusiasm of the performers and their completely joyous show. This alone raises them a cut above, and their “Ethiopian Dreams” experience is strongly recommended, having already been lauded at the Edinburgh Fringe and having been featured in the Royal Variety Performance.
Perhaps the best act is the juggling routine by brothers Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam, who began as street performers in Kaffa, Ethiopia, two decades ago. They keep adding more juggling batons in a breathtaking display.
The show starts with some pretty spectacular acrobatic flips with the airborne athletes landing on the hands of their colleagues more than six feet above the stage. At one point on press night, there was a very near miss – which would have hurt – but the boy was in the end caught, so it all went perfectly and jaw-droppingly.
The hour or so’s antics end with some pole-dancing where the climbers hang from the masts with their arms at 90 degrees as if they were flags.
The tension is only briefly broken by a clown whose tightrope never leaves the ground. I was half expecting him to return with a higher level tightrope. Instead we got a balancing ladder and then female contortionists who were consistently amazing, stacking up on top of each other and smiling throughout as they performed the most incredible of coordinated acts.
It is very easy to get blasé about circus spectaculars. In the last two years London has had a lot, particularly those planned to coincide with school holidays. Roll up, roll up. There are no elephants, lions or fire-eaters this time, but there is a lot of fun.
It gets to the stage where it takes a lot to top previous performances. This critic has seen the Moscow State Circus and Zippos in Victoria Park; the Chinese Shaolin Monks with their phenomenal ability to balance on two fingers; the Cirque du Soleil with its spectacular trapeze stunts; shows where acrobats navigate tightropes with unicycles, even juggling with flaming batons at the same time; Cirque Berserk with its Lucius Team motorcyclists in a circle of death and more. These young Ethiopian performers don’t up the ante to this degree but theirs is still a lively show.
Another reason to come to the festival is to enjoy its attractive sitting-out area close to the London Eye, with an AstroTurf “Underbelly Pasture” garden full of street-food stalls and a range of specialist bars.
After this short run by Circus Abyssinia, Bogota’s Circolombia returns to Britain, after also taking Edinburgh by storm with its critically acclaimed show. Plus Underbelly also has scheduled more circuses: Germany’s SOAP and Circa from Brisbane, Australia. The fest also features a range of other entertainment including comedy, family shows, cabaret and variety.
The South Bank is where it is all happening right now – the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room reopened this month, following the similar refurb of the Hayward Gallery. The Meltdown Festival looks to be especially good too this year, helmed by Robert Smith.
It is just the time to go now as things warm up at last after some chilly nights. Just imagine how relaxing will be when the sun comes out, or on a long summer evening.
Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams at Underbelly Festival Southbank, April 6 through May 20. The festival runs through September 30. On the Southbank, between Southbank Centre, Jubilee Gardens and the London Eye, just off Belvedere Road. Information: http://www.underbellyfestival.com
Founder Louise Blouin