It’s 1933, and Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror is fighting several battles in Germany. With the National Socialists grabbing power, the performing troupe of deaf, disabled and non-disabled aerialists and acrobats are in the firing line of discrimination, violent attacks and forced sterilisation. The circus, meanwhile, is underperforming and needs to boost ticket sales. Ringmaster Waldo (Garry Robson) struggles to deal with his ambitious son Peter (Tilly-Lee Kronick), and romantic tussles infest the group.
Into the fray comes Gerhard (Lawrence Swaddle), who forgoes being a chemist in his father’s insecticide company to follow his dreams of becoming a circus performer. He falls in love with star of the show Krista (Abbie Purvis), and they become embroiled in an arm wrestle – his love for her versus her fear of rejection; his new stardom threatening her headline status; his dabbling in Nazi ideology in conflict with her danger of becoming one of the 250,000 disabled people murdered under Hitler’s regime.
When the Circus comes under the microscope of the Brownshirts and is ordered to perform in front of a rally, without its disabled performers, things come to a head. How does Waldo square his need to keep the show on the road with the potential betrayal of his stars?
Amongst the poignancy, there are moments of real beauty and fun in Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror. Mirabelle Gremaud twists her body around the stage as Queenie, the sorceress who sees the dangers of the future. Robson channels his inner Ian Dury as Waldo introduces his troupe one by one, singing of their exotic origins and strange powers. Gerhard winds himself up in aerial rope and silks with great skill, and the moment when Krista shows him how to bow to an audience simmers with feeling. (This is all the more impressive as Swaddle was a late addition to the cast.) Deaf clowns Mish (Raphaella Julien) and Mosh (Brooklyn Melvin) dance their own language together, skewering the rest of the gang while also being highly perceptive. Best of all is the trapeze duet between Renée (Jonny Leitch) and Peter, a slow, moving performance which highlights their abilities as well as an underlying tension between them.
The show could perhaps do with more such moments. It is successful in portraying the horrors of Nazi Germany and the vicious persecution faced by many, but misses the opportunity to demonstrate fully the magic of circus life and the special family it creates. In teasing three different romantic threads – plus plenty of other interpersonal trials – it diffuses them somewhat, and it perhaps would have been more powerful to have a single dominant one.
Nevertheless, Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror carries an important message, and does so in an emphatically inclusive way. The persecution of disabled Germans under the Nazi regime is often in the shadow of the numerous other crimes committed, and this show – based on real stories – does well to counteract that.