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Cirque Berserk! – Riverside Studios

It’s not a new thing to bill a circus show as featuring ‘death-defying’ stunts. It’s just that these days, circus tends to affirm life, or at least explore its themes, rather than settling for defying its opposite. Cirque Berserk, however, is a show that embraces a traditional circus vibe. While it’s packed with contemporary circus skills, the finesse on display is 95% funnelled into gob-smacking tricks, with the current trend for narrative and dramaturgy a distant afterthought.

CIRQUE BERSERK! Hulan. Photographer Piet-Hein Out.
CIRQUE BERSERK! Hulan. Photographer Piet-Hein Out.

Don’t get me wrong: the skills are dramatic and frequently have the audience gasping and clapping. Groups form human pyramids, tossing members through the air to land on others’ heads. They backflip while dodging skipping ropes. A woman fires an arrow into a target… then repeats the trick holding the bow with her feet. Wow after wow.

Each audience member will come away with a different favourite act, but I think it’s a good bet everyone will recall a particular routine: the Globe of Death, in which motorcyclists circumnavigate the inside of a spherical steel cage. The first outing of these fearless bikers comes right before the interval. Presumably to allow the petrol fumes to dissipate.

Speaking of risky performances, though, I genuinely didn’t know people still do knife-throwing acts – or ‘impalement arts’ as they’re known in the lingo (which is odd, given that presumably the idea is not to impale people). That this technique features in Cirque Berserk doesn’t feel so much death-defying, as manslaughter-defying (or at least GBH-defying). A man throwing knives at a pretty woman (okay, fine, near a pretty woman) just doesn’t feel very 2023 to me. Turns out, I find watching knife-throwing even less pleasant than contortionists (which is already a bit of a handicap for someone who reviews circus!)

Contrasting the darker tones, and emotion-tugging Danger! music, are lighter notes. A clown, who just wants to get in on the circus he doesn’t realise he’s already part of, delivers comic turns with panache. He has a whole bevvy of other skills under his belt too.

At other times I find myself asking, ‘What are these costumes?’ (seriously, those jugglers?!?), or ‘What’s with the owl?’ One of my notes reads simply ‘Pole Tarzan’. You’ll know exactly what I mean if you go and see the show, but I’ll spare you my attempt to explain it here.

The production is varied in mood, and moments with a dozen people on stage give way to single-handers. There’s something for everyone, especially as each act rushes on before the last has vacated. It reminds me of how Ben and/or Jerry were obsessed with the idea nobody should eat a spoonful of their ice cream without chunks, so it became a founding ethos of the company to pack ’em in.

You can find more impressive individual performers elsewhere, but to better the consistency of skill level across the acts, you’re talking Cirque du Soleil level shows. I have a great time, and you will too. But I’ve come to expect more from a circus than a string of unconnected tricks, with only the barest nod to how come these people are doing these things in front of me. The complete lack of narrative leaves me cold. What might amount to something compelling if they gave more thought to the why, ends up feeling soulless instead.

3 Star Review

Review by ben Ross

Following sold-out seasons in the West End and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Cirque Berserk! celebrates its tenth anniversary with a five-week season at the Riverside Studios.

Presented by Zippos, Britain’s biggest and boldest theatre-circus spectacular showcases the finest in traditional circus thrills and skills, bringing this treasured form of live entertainment bang up-to-date in a jaw-dropping show created especially for the stage. Combining contemporary cirque-style artistry with adrenaline-fuelled stunt action, this astoundingly talented international troupe includes over thirty fearless acrobats, aerialists, and daredevil stuntmen.


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