Astounding would be nothing short of an understatement to describe the spectacle that is the story of Phillip Astley – father of the modern circus – brought to life on stage at the New Vic Theatre in his hometown.
Astley’s Astounding Adventures, first performed in 2018, has returned to the theatre in the round this week in celebration of the 850th anniversary of Newcastle-under-Lyme receiving its charter to become a borough.
Set in the late 18th century, the play introduces us to the visionary Philip Astley, portrayed with remarkable finesse by the versatile Nicholas Richardson. With witty narration from New Vic favourite Michael Hugo, we are sown the early seeds of Astley’s story from the son of a carpenter to a Major, having been awarded the title for his bravery and horsemanship.
Attending a tea party, he meets Patty Jones – played by Danielle Bird – and this is where the real story begins. The New Vic said: “When Philip and Patty meet, they both know their lives are about to change. As the couple begin their adventure together, they are unaware that they will become the legends of one of the greatest stories ever told…”
For those who have had the pleasure of watching Marvellous or The Card, then you’ll know that Astley’s Astounding Adventures is in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins, who, with the help of Vicki Dela Amedume MBE, skillfully recreates the magic, illusion and mastery of the circus with this awe-inspiring production. With their boundless creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, it’s a show jam-packed with surprise, wonder and humour as you witness teleporting sheets of paper, a Houdini-style chain escape and the world’s fastest pregnancy and delivery.
The cast is – as can always be expected from a New Vic production – phenomenal. There are several familiar faces in Michael Hugo, Gareth Cassidy, Danielle Bird, Nicholas Richardson and Nicholas Shaw, while many others, including Darcy Braimog, Adrian Decosta and Siu-See Hung made their local debut, which makes for a refreshing dynamic as they bring their larger-than-life personalities to the production.
The chemistry between the cast members on stage truly makes the show, their energy, friendship and connection really brings the show to life and makes it a barrel of laughs. Gareth Cassidy, playing ‘a bit of a drunk’ Alfie Burrell and best friend of Astley, is a man of many talents, and every in every production, he somehow manages to impress with a new unusual skill, meanwhile Michael Hugo’s well-timed wit and his dedication to committing to each and every character – be it Zippo the clown or a swooning lady – is commendable. I would like to think he’s injected a little of his ‘Nello’ into Zipper, after working so closely with Neil Baldwin last year.
Adrian Charles steps into the shoes of the loathsome Charles Hughes and is the perfect villain, as charming as he is sly, while Sui-See Hung stole many a scene with her sassy sarcasm and dry humour despite a near-wordless role as Billy the little military horse.
Danielle and Nicholas’ relationship as Patty and Philip was a wonderful pairing, from their blossoming romance to their elegant aerial silk display that was utterly mesmerising. Not to mention that while Astley’s success was a product of passion and visionary dreams, Patty proves the saying ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ to be true, and really is the unsung hero of this story.
When it comes to the circus performances and trick riding, many may wonder ‘how on earth will they do it?’ Brilliantly, is how. The shows feature all the fun of the fair with unicycles, clowns, mind-reading horses, knife juggling and acrobatics, with help from circus performers Rafio Ffinch-Shah, Joseph Hamilton, Tamzen Moulding and Lee Partridge, as well as two skilled swings who ensure the magic runs smoothly. I won’t ruin any surprises, but the way they create the trick riding element is breathtaking.
Astley’s charisma, passion, and commitment to his craft shine through in Nicholas’ portrayal, making it impossible not to root for the character in what is a wonderful tribute to Philip Astley’s groundbreaking performances and his part in the curation of the modern circus.
Forget ‘The Greatest Showman’, because this is the greatest show. Written by Staffordshire-born writer Frazer Flintha, Astley’s Astounding Adventures is not just a play – it is a celebration of the human spirit’s boundless creativity and the enduring power of storytelling, and an invitation to dream, to believe, and to celebrate the magic of the circus.
Astley’s Astounding Adventures is running at the New Vic from Saturday, September 23 to Saturday, October 21. Book your tickets to see it here.