Circus at the Fringe – 250 Years in the Making

2018 is the 250th birthday of circus as an art form, so what's in store for it this year at the Fringe?

Preview by Katherine Kavanagh | 30 Jul 2018

In case you missed it, 2018 is being celebrated all over the world as the 250th birthday of circus. But a lot can happen in 250 years and, when we talk of circus now, we have to lose its definite article. The art form has evolved into a multifarious genre, and nowhere can that be seen better than at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

A glance through the Dance, Physical Theatre and Circus section of this year’s programme reveals shows that tell stories, shows that share messages, shows that make people feel emotions, and shows that make people feel sensations. There are shows for adults, shows for children, and shows for all the family. There are shows where one person performs a variety of disciplines and shows where a variety of people all perform the same discipline in an extended hour of artistic exploration. There are shows that bring various acts of extraordinary skill together into a single entertainment in a circular arena, entertaining a 21st century crowd in the same way those first circuses did 250 years ago (it’s also worth checking all the other sections of the programme too – circus-based work has been found in Theatre, Comedy, Children’s Shows, Cabaret, and Musicals & Opera). 

The innovative quality of circus is what has propelled it through the last quarter of a millennium. Introducing new technologies to isolated communities in an era before mass communication; harnessing the zeitgeists of railroads, Hollywood, and television to share its mystique with the masses; borrowing from other art forms to offer surprising spectacles and share ideas; showcasing new possibilities of what humankind can achieve.

Now, in an era where digital connection is the norm, circus distinguishes itself in offering a way to tap into the tangible connection of human bodies to the world around them, and to each other. Different styles appeal to different tastes, but often people are only aware of the more classical formats. They’re the ones that have been present for generations in our cultural compendium of books, movies and children’s decor. Now though, the Fringe is upon us, and there’s no excuse to stay in the dark about what 21st-century circus has to offer:

Single-discipline shows

One distinct feature on the current circus landscape is the emergence of full-length shows based on a single piece of equipment or traditional skill. Gandini Juggling are well known for their interdisciplinary collaborations with dance artists, but with 8 Songs they return to their roots of choreographed juggling in a homage to rock’n’roll at Assembly Roxy. Lumo Company showcases tightwire artist Hanna Moisala in WireDo, a solo performance inspired by Japanese bondage practice Shibari at C South. In the UK, clowns have been associated with theatre for longer than they have with circus, so clown shows often get overlooked in the ‘single discipline’ category. We’re not going to do that. Have a look at Better Together, by Acá Theatre at Pleasance Courtyard. Remember, clown is what someone does, not a nostalgic facepaint.


Yes, circus can tell stories. It’s been doing so since the hippodramas of the 1800s. Notorious Strumpet & Dangerous Girl is the award-winning one-woman show at Summerhall from multi-talented Jess Love, which entwines autobiography with the story of her great-great-great-great-grandmother, sent as a convict to settle in Australia. Not all narrative has to be linear, and Tabarnak, from Cirque Alfonse at the Underbelly Circus Hub, tells the story of Québecois church life by shifting acrobatic vignettes depicting different uses over time. In 3am Waitress at C South, from Birmingham’s RoguePlay Theatre, aerial silks performance combines with physical theatre, dance and spoken word, in a Lynchian road movie of a show inspired by a mental health journey through grief and loneliness.


While some circus artists take a theatrical storytelling approach to their work, others turn to the more ambiguous evocations of dance. My Land is the latest stylish, atmospheric show from Hungarian dancer-turned-director Bence Vági’s company Recirquel, at Assembly Roxy; British wunderkinds Barely Methodical Troupe have worked with choreographer Melissa Ellberger to produce their more minimal third show, SHIFT, at the Circus Hub. Jugglers Chris Patfield and Jose Triguero, inspired by companies like DV8 and Mangrove, have worked in co-production with Gandini Juggling on Gibbon, a wild deconstruction of the notion of masculinity at Assembly Rooms.


Throughout most of the 20th century, representation in circus stuck to stock conservative imagery of beauty, strength and grace. Now artists who don’t fit those labels are also able to showcase their perspectives, talents and political vantage points. Casting Off is intergenerational, all-female circus with a lot to say at Assembly George Square Gardens, from A Good Catch & Sharon Burgess Productions. Husbands Lachlan and Jesse of returning Fringe favourites Casus share the ‘soft love’ side of homosexual romance that rarely reaches the stage and screen in You & I at Assembly Roxy. Edinburgh based aerial theatre company Paper Doll Militia present Egg at Summerhall, as a solo vehicle for Sarah Bebe Holmes to explore her experience of egg donation, fertility and science.

Energy and Spectacle

These shows may be the closest to the picture book past of what circus entertainment once was – a variety of thrilling acts designed to wow and amaze. We have Circolombia at the Circus Hub with their self-titled show, whose USP is Latin vibes and live, youthful singing; UniverSoul are hitting British shores for the first time from the USA, leaving their elephants behind, but bringing their hip-hop dance party dynamic with them (they're also under the big Circus Hub tent); homegrown British show Cirque Berserk! will be at the Pleasance's base at EICC, with skills and presentation you might expect under a big top, but zoomed in for the intensity of a theatre space.


Whilst it’s never been unusual to find circus acts popping up in cabaret night line-ups, here are a few nights created by circus people, with circus skills at their heart. Circus-Cision is brought to us by Head First Acrobats – known in previous years as pirates by day and zombies by night – down at the Circus Hub. Dragged up and out of this world, the Briefs Factory are back with their latest extravaganza, Briefs: Close Encounters (yes, think sci-fi) at Assembly Hall. Hot Brown Honey, at Gilded Balloon Teviot, could easily have fitted any of these last three categories, but we’ll put them here. These women are a fierce phenomenon, and never less than highly entertaining.


Gone are the days of considering circus ‘just for the kids’, but these shows are geared specially towards the little ones. In Chores, by Hoopla Clique, it's time to tidy the bedroom in George Square Gardens, but all these circus toys keep getting in the way. Returning Underbelly favourites Trash Test Dummies have swapped their garbage cans for goggles with new show Splash Test Dummies at the Circus Hub. As part of the Free Fringe, charming and talented Mr Vita from Spain presents Grumpy Pants at the Free Sisters Laughing Horse venue.

After all that, you may want to dig back into our circus roots and find out how it all started 250 years ago. Audacious Mr Astley is a one-man play by actor, ringmaster and circus historian Chris Barltrop, bringing the beginnings of circus as we know it to life every day at Pleasance Courtyard. Here’s to 250 years more of entertainment innovation from the wide and wonderful circus world.