Theatre Review: Astley’s Outstanding Adventures @ The New Vic

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Since being given a Royal Charter by King Henry II in 1173, the market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme  has rarely hit the national headlines. One exception to that trend is the birth of King Henry II – credited as the founder of the modern day circus.

With the Borough celebrating the 850th anniversary of its Incorporation status, the New Vic decided to resurrect Astley’s Outstanding Adventures – the massive hit from 2018 that marked the 250th year since modern circus was founded.

This decision has delighted local audiences who have flocked to see a spectacular piece of theatre that showcases what the New Vic always excels in – the telling of local tales in spectacular fashion.

Astley (Nicholas Richardson) was born the son of a cabinet-maker but had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps and always maintained that he wanted to be a gentleman. Constantly falling out with his father, Philip decided to leave to seek his fortune and took the opportunity provided by the Seven Years’ War and enlist in the army.

Following many heroic deeds, the Newcastle-born man was elevated to the officer class by the King (Nicholas Shaw) and regarded as the finest horseman in London but despite his fame on the battlefield was unable to find a position in civilian life. His working-class accent was mocked by many and – despite the support of Alfie Burrell (Gareth Cassidy), a friend from back home – he is unable to secure the role of a riding tutor to the children of the gentry.

By chance, Philip learns of the skills of trick equestrianism when seeing a performance by Charles Hughes (Adrien De Costa) and that is the beginning of an-off relationship between the two with Hughes alternating between partner and fierce rival – and, more importantly, when what we know as a circus was conceived.

Hughes’ former partner Patty Jones (Danielle Bird) throws in her lot with Astley – developing a romantic relationship – and the business develops from performing in a field that is little more than a bog to creating the world’s first covered amphitheatre.

Despite learning new tricks and introducing a wide variety of performers to his business – including the clown Zipper (Michael Hugo) -, Astley’s progress is far from smooth. The competition with Hughes becomes fiercer and more underhand and – with the family concern in trouble – Philip’s son John (Darcy Braimoh) – who has been a natural performer since childhood – announces that he wishes to leave. How will Philip hit the heights again? And will Alfie find a life partner? He has his eyes on the lady played by the very versatile Siu-see Hung who has a full set of teeth.

With Hugo keeping things moving as Narrator, the play bowls along at a cracking pace and has the audience alternating between laughing with joy, being enthralled by the action and gasping in amazement at the circus tricks.

The aerialism that closes Act One is absolutely out of this world and the performances that close the show are variety entertainment at its very best. And it is such a thrill to see so many of the New Vic’s favourite artists returning and collaborating in what is a feast for the whole family.

Director Theresa Heskins has created another masterpiece and has assembled a truly talented Creative Team around her – Circus Choreographer Vicki Dela Amedume, Musical Director James Atherton, Movement Director Beverley Norris-Edmunds, Set Designer Laura Willstead, Costume Designer Lis Evans – to make Astley’s Adventures truly Astounding.

This magical mix of all that is good in the modern circus could grace any stage in the land. We are truly privileged that it is available in its rightful home and in its perfect setting. There may not be another significant Anniversary to celebrate in the near future, so take my advice. Join the crowds and catch the show while you can so that you can wallow in the legacy left by one of Newcastle’s most famous sons.

Astley’s Outstanding Adventures has a running time of approximately 2 hours 45 minutes including interval and continues until October 21st. For ticket information contact 01782 717962 or tickets@newvictheatre.org.uk