Waldo’s Circus of Magic & Terror at Theatre Royal Plymouth Review

★★ ½

The setting is Brandenburg, Germany in 1933 and in the streets nobody is safe as the Nazis
are burning books and suspending civil rights; with many desperately searching for a method
of escape. They’ve persecuted the Jews and are now setting their sights on following suit in
backing Hitler’s dominion to capture other minority groups, including travelling circuses,
which is exactly where Waldo’s troupe comes into play–with every single member of the
company being categorised as ‘freaks’ of society within the New Order.

With tensions already high between Waldo (Garry Robson) and his employees, this
becomes their breaking point as persecution comes knocking and this unconventional family
must come together to survive the darkest of days. With the Nazi Party looming, can Waldo’s
disappearing act help save the troupe find their freedom?

This brand new production that combines magic, acrobatics, disabled performers (and
musical numbers!) comes from Extraordinary Bodies, in co-production with Bristol Old Vic
and our very own Theatre Royal Plymouth is constructed around real-life experiences of
circus performers of their time forced to perform in Nazi rallies. Described as a “large-scale
collaboration between D/deaf, disabled and non-disabled artists and creators”, with every
single production being truly accessible through the utilisation of live BSL interpreting from
the impeccable Max Marchewicz alongside captions on either side of the stage was a
welcome addition. However, this production lacked the level of pace, energy and storyline it
required to become a showstopper.

Musical numbers often became repetitive, and whilst creating a brand-new musical is no
mean feat, co-direction from Billy Alwen, Claire Hodgson and Jenny Davis; alongside music
by Charles Hazlewood becomes a muddled mix that I would’ve preferred focused on the
acrobatic nature of the circus that was truly faultless and undoubtedly the highlight of the

With only a cast of 13 individuals, Abbie Purvis’ Krista is undoubtedly the star of the show.
Longing for a life outside of the circus and dreaming of children; Purvis certainly stands out
against the crowd in a world she will always stand out in, being an actress with dwarfism.
With the majority of the collective cast having a disability, this makes you root for the troupe
all the more, with Krista’s dreams of an average life being told through her touching vocals
and harmonizations with fellow actor, the non-disabled Gerhard played by Lawrence

Gerhard first appears on the scene with his sister Margot (Mirabelle Gremaud) who’s set in
her ways of living up to their family name and working in the medical industry. However, he
goes against his entire family morals, falling in love with the circus’ performative nature;
despite being accused of having a “curiosity for the exotic”. As an actor, Swaddle is able to
bring comedic relief and has great chemistry with Purvis as the two have romantic interests
for one another, which come to fruition.

Within the collective ensemble, honourable mentions respectively go to Jonny Leitch as
Renée, the queer aerialist whose skills are arguably the best on stage as he has no lower
limbs–who also manages to play the drums as part of the band. This paired with Waldo’s
son, and ring-boy, Peter played by Tilly Lee-Kronick, creates a great duo. These two share a
minute moment of intimacy in a beautiful duet they practise on the trapeze, before Peter
flees to join the brownshirts; and this relationship is unfortunately never returned to again
despite him returning to the circus in a role of command as a kapitän; forcing his father’s
troupe to perform at a Nazi rally or face closure.

There are many things to credit within the production such as the set design from Ti Green,
creating the illusion of a spangly adorned circus tent, allowing for an original design that
makes great use of a live band at the top of the big top–with each of the band members
(Harriet Riley, Dave ‘Johnzy’ Jones and Jonny Leitch), bringing life and atmosphere to the
stage to accompany feats of acrobatic brilliance. Lighting design from Katy Morison is
brilliantly lit to contradict the luminescence of the performative circus troupe to the darkness
of Nazi Germany that looms just outside the safety of their tent.

Waldo’s Circus Of Magic and Terror is commendable in many ways. It has clear potential as
a piece of theatre, but with the story lacking pace; it struggles to tell the importance of the
culture and history it’s inspired by within its runtime. Being set in a circus tent and having
many performative tricks throughout, it definitely lives up to the first part of its name…but the
only terror apparent is the history we’re already very aware of through the presentation of
Nazi Germany.

It deserves to be acknowledged for its accessibility and some scenes are most definitely
theatrical highlights, with strong moral stories being at the forefront of its existence, thus
allowing for a thought-provoking piece. However, with repetitive lyrics that reiterated what we
already understood as an audience, I found myself having less “fun, fun, fun” and wanting
the show to be “done, done, done”.

Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror is running at Theatre Royal Plymouth until Saturday 29th
April 2023 as part of its diverse UK tour and will be running at select venues until June 2023.

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