The circus is a magical place. Even now, fifty years later, I can still remember attending a show at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome for my fifth birthday treat. It was a time when live animals still appeared in circuses, television was in black and white, and Victorian and Edwardian artifacts were distinctly unfashionable and simply thrown away or burnt when buildings were modernised and upgraded. If it were not for 1960's pop star Peter Jay who, with his father, bought the Hippodrome in the late 1970's, this building could have been lost for ever. Instead, it stands today as one of only two indoor circuses still operating today. Another, now used as a theatre, is perhaps better known as the London Palladium.
'The Tempest' is one of the earliest Shakespeare plays that I can remember studying at school. We were made to perform read-throughs in English, battling through unfamiliar syntax and vocabulary. Some of us hated having to read out aloud, others seemed to revel in the attention. I remember reading the part of Ferdinand, with Miranda's lines taken by a girl that, at the time, I had an enormous teenage crush on. To this day I can still recall the awkward adolescent eroticism of delivering Shakespeare's words of love to that eleven year old girl, and blushing as the rest of the class started to giggle.
And so, fifty years later the magic has come full circle. I know not what happened to that eleven year old object of my desire, but the Hippodrome is still standing, and this year is hosting a production of 'The Tempest' as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. I was disappointed to have missed out on the offer made to the festival volunteer team to attend one of the preview performances, and with the Hippodrome using their own team of stewards and ushers during the run it seemed increasingly unlikely that I would get to see the show.
Imagine my delight when an e-mail late last week from the festival volunteer co-ordinators announced that they would, after all, be sending two volunteer stewards over to each performance to assist the in-house team. I offered myself for the Tuesday evening, and my offer was accepted.
The Festival is operating a ticketed bus service that leaves from outside the Theatre Royal in Norwich each evening for those who prefer not to drive to Great Yarmouth, and would otherwise find the return journey difficult by public transport. I am told to report to the bus at 6.00pm.
"He'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds"
DENNIS - Can you tell what it is yet?
There are two other volunteers on tonight's coach - another, like me, will act as a steward. The second is given a list of passenger names and is tasked as 'coach assistant', responsible for ensuring we leave no-one behind. As tonight's coach is full, and there appears to be some confusion caused by a couple who have turned up 'on-spec' hoping for seats, this turns into a team effort.
With the correct number of passengers on board, we depart, and make good time to Great Yarmouth, arriving outside the Hippodrome soon after 7.00pm. We report to Thomas, the stage manager, for our volunteer briefing. The role is not onerous. We are only required to watch out for any members of one section of the audience heading for the toilets during the actual performance. Because of the seating plan, and the close proximity of the circus ring we need to make sure that anyone returning to their seats times their return so as not to get in the way of the constantly moving performers. And that is it. We get given front row seats, and settle down to enjoy the show. And not one person leaves their seat outside of the twenty minute interval. Result.
As for individual performances, Tony Guilfoyle is dignified and controlling as Prospero, Jane Leaney is complicit and chameleon-like as Ariel, switching from a black gown of invisibility to donning a swimsuit for an Esther Williams styled aquatic sequence, and even dressing as a bee during the sprites scene. Her acrobatic avatar shadows her in a neat and stylish performance. Antonio's party arrive like survivors from an episode of Lost, in their linen trousers and blazers, yet their regality is restored by the final act. Colin Hurley and John McCarthy contribute a wonderfully comedic partnership as Stephano and Trinculo, worthy of any music-hall stage, with McCarthy in his rolled up trousers and bowler hat also reminding me at times, of comedian Jimmy Cricket. Freddy Carter and the exotic Pia Laborde Noguez added youthful innocence as those young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, although Pia's husky voice was occasionally lost in projection. However, the standout star for me was Graeme McKnight as the feral, hooded Caliban - deliciously bitter under Prospero's control until the final events take their course. In his ripped track bottoms he could have wandered into the Hippodrome straight off the back streets of Yarmouth. Deliberately ironic or not, it was assured that it was with his character that our sympathy lay throughout.
This may not be the best performance of The Tempest that you ever see. Don't come to the Hippodrome expecting millions of pounds worth of special effects, lasers and pyrotechnics. The budget simply wasn't there. If you prefer surreal experimentalism and an exotic soundtrack then hire a copy of Peter Greenaway's 'Prospero's Books'. What William Galinsky has achieved with this production is to make the venue, and the spirit of the circus, the real focus of the show without losing any of the classicism of the play itself. Shakespeare's words, and the actors and acrobats together contrive to provide what this building was originally designed for - the colour, the sounds and the movement that only live entertainment can deliver. I challenge you to spend an evening with Prospero, Ariel and company in that wonderful building and not come out as if emerging from a magic spell.
The coach is waiting for us outside. We count our passengers back on board, and head back to Norwich. Excited chatter on the journey back tells the story. The production is a success.
And, for me, the magic continues. In my volunteer capacity I get a second chance to see the show this Friday.
But now I am wondering whatever happened to my Miranda, that girl from Form 1B?
Tickets for The Tempest can be bought online, or in person through the Hippodrome or Theatre Royal box offices -