If you've seen any of the Cirque du Soleil shows in recent years, you'd be forgiven for thinking twice about their latest show, Kooza, currently showing at the Albert Hall in London.
In fact, since seeing Quidam in their Big Top in Manchester, a number of years ago, we've much preferred their performances in the tent, rather than what seems to be their new home, at the Albert Hall. But it's not just the venue that's been a bit disappointing in recent years. Sure, Varekai was very clever, but it lacked the sparkle and excitement of Saltimbanco.
Alegria was full of in-flight trapeze trickery but the whole show looked like it wasn't quite big enough to fill the Albert Hall - Dralion was far more impressive, despite the large set pieces, for being in the confines of the Big Top.
Totem was technically very impressive, with large video screens merging with live action performance, but the actual choreography left a little to be desired - it was almost as if the technology had taken precedence over the performance: until Totem, we hadn't ever seen a performer miss a trick or fail or fall. If nothing else, the performers were expert at disguising, if not avoiding, mistakes - but Totem was littered with failed attempts at big set pieces.
And the less said about the abysmal Michael Jackson tribute, the better!
Nick and I have seen a lot of the Cirque du Soleil shows both in the UK and across Europe. Early shows like Quidam, Saltimbanco and Dralion were filled with breath-taking acrobatics and circus skills; things which made you gasp and marvel, as well as scratch your head at the sheer bizarreness of it all!
Later shows like Varekai and Totem were a bit, well, "meh". And we should really have insisted on a refund for the Michael Jackson tribute show - it stank!
When Kooza was first advertised, we gave it a miss.
We'd spent enough of our hard-earned with Cirque, and the last two or three shows had been, frankly, disappointing. So we weren't going to be stung again (the cost of the tickets has steadily increased over the years, from about £25 to over £65 for the latest shows).
Then somehow, we had a date in the diary and a day out in London planned (sure Brighton is only an hour and half away on the train, but anyone who's ever used the Southern Trains service will understand why you need to set aside a whole day to make the trip!) and were, once again, off to the Albert Hall. It was with some trepidation we arrived for a matinee performance.
Being wary of overspending at yet another below-par performance, we didn't even see the programme notes which said that Kooza was "...a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil: it combines two circus traditions - acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. The show highlights the physical demands of human performance in all its splendor and fragility, presented in a colorful mélange that emphasizes bold slapstick humor."
In all honesty, the programme "information" is often little more than pretentious fluff, even in their good shows! But reading further, the programme also revealed that the artistic directors for Kooza were some of the original Cirque du Soleil directors. In short, they said, we were in for a treat!
From the moment the on-stage live band started thumping out their world-music/heavy-metal fusion riffs it felt like "classic" Cirque. The clowns were great. The acrobats were amazing. The whole performance fizzed with excitement, and the performers couldn't put a foot wrong. The show was funny, and smart; the acrobatics incredible and the feats of physical exertion unbelievable.
In the second half, the show turned almost burlesque, with tall skeletal characters and feather boas dancing across the stage. The music kept things moving along at a pace, and the performances were breath-taking. It was almost impossible to watch the guys on the "wheels of death" without gasping out loud!
I was asked, as we left the show, how it had been (friends and family knew we were hesitant about going). The answer easily fit into 160 characters. Simply put, Cirque got good again.
If you've ever seen Cirque du Soleil and ever wondered what all the fuss was about (or had the misfortune to think that horrible TV show with Ruby Wax was anything to do with them) get some tickets to Kooza and see what they're really all about. If you've never seen Cirque du Soleil, this is one of the better shows we've seen - so don't let dodgy reviews about past shows put you off (but, equally, give the MJ Tribute a wide berth!)
It's been a long time since Cirque put on such a (quite literally at times) breath-taking show. If you like live performances of any kind - live music, dance, magic, comedy, circus skills, stunts, or a combination of any or all of these, Kooza delivers on every level. A great show!