Variety, as we all know, is the spice of life, and it seems our appetite for it has been pretty constant since the days of the Strong Man and the Bearded Lady. London's South Bank is currently hosting a new big top incarnation in the form of a beautiful art nouveau mirror tent, home to La Soirée's shiny sideshow collection over Christmas.
This is old tricks skilfully rebranded for a metropolitan audience that perhaps thinks itself sophisticated; too sophisticated for Gerry Cottle's Circus in Chingford, say, but willing to fork out for seats and drinks at something edgy with a French name. Many of us are guilty of peppering our prose with a bit of French to add a bit of je ne sais quoi, but it seems we also take our circuses gallicised with foreign aliases like Cirque du Soleil or La Clique.
For all La Soirée is billed as "new", it feels like a reassuring trip to Variety Villas down Memory Lane. Part of the evening's fun was working out the genealogy of the acts, the bloodlines from, amongst other things, TV shows of the 1970's like the fabulously awful Seaside Special (whose tent was courtesy of Cottle himself). There's the skit where an audience member has to find the lines for a scene on the body of the comedienne, which is pure Generation Game circa 1974. Even the male striptease routines didn't offer too much more than the Chippendales have already given us. (Mercifully, perhaps.) The acrobatic dance number round the lamppost is Gene Kelly via George Sampson off Britain's Got Talent.
Indeed the links to BGT are proudly referenced when titanic black baritone "Chocolate Gateau", winsome in feathers and lycra, lip-synchs along to Susan Boyle's first audition, before belting out his own version of "I Dreamed a Dream". Of course the great spangly prize offered to BGT contestants is the staggeringly irrelevant Royal Variety Show (perhaps the attacks on Charles and Camilla were not anti-tuition fees but anti-variety). The phrase "infinite variety" begins to sound like a depressing sentence.
Nothing new under the glitter-ball, then. But that said, La Soirée does begin to work a creeping charm. Maybe the shock of the wine prices had worn off, and the wine itself had kicked in, but by the second half I was thawing nicely to the circus shtick. The lamppost dance really is astonishingly beautiful: performer Hamish McCann actually appears to walk on air as he spins round the post horizontally, to the smoky soundtrack of Nina Simone. Frodo the double-jointed clown, in his impossibly small tennis shorts, is disarmingly goofy as he punctuates his gags and contortions with a celebratory handful of confetti.
Acrobats "The English Gents" pull off a Magritte surrealism, their supercilious pinstriped, pipe-smoking vibe at delicious odds with their extraordinary balance and strength. And mention must be made of Bath Boy, the "demigod in denim", wearing throwback jeans from the Levi's 501 adverts of the 1980's. But wet. The mix of impeccable pecs and aerial stunts (and did I mention he was wet?), which had water arcing provocatively over the ringside seats, had a large portion of the audience baying.
The South Bank has talent, all right, but as with all such things, not all talents are equal. Being super skilled with hula-hoops or sword swallowing is unlikely to cut quite the same kind of visual dash as our laving Lothario. Not all the pratfalls were properly visible in the round, and some of the comedy numbers seemed weary in comparison, our appreciation of such gags apparently having a much shorter shelf life than our appreciation of the ripped male form. And this spectator would have preferred the risks and reciprocities of live music: the tape somehow renders the whole thing karaoke-flat.
I may prefer my circuses more subversive and my cabaret more seedy, but nonetheless there is something rather wonderful about artists who have devoted their lives to perfecting something so magnificently anomalous. The price tag might disqualify La Soirée from Juvenal's cheap and cheerful bread and circuses, but it's definitely one way to warm up a cold, cold December night.