The 250th anniversary of the modern circus will be commemorated in 2018 across the UK, through a wide range of performances, exhibitions and activities.
And it’s all down to Philip Astley, who was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Staffiordshire, in 1742.
Astley was the son of a Staffordshire cabinetmaker, who grew up to become a master equestrian, entrepreneur, war hero and showman. In 1768, having acquired “Ha’Penny Hatch” – a small piece of land on the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster Bridge – he opened a riding school, creating performances and then developing the 42-foot diameter circus ring. This remains the standard-size ring used in circus across the world to this day.
Bringing together acrobats, clowns and trick riders for over 40 years, Astley entertained both high society and the general public with a series of acts that combined risky and tense displays of skill with comic relief. Astley himself was at the heart of these performances, simultaneously riding up to three horses while performing ever-more daring tricks. The ‘original’ ringmaster, it is believed that the traditional military style wear of the ‘ringmaster also stems from Astley.
The Philip Astley Project has been formed to celebrate the man himself in the unassuming Staffordshire market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme – one of six “Cities of Circus for 2018” (http://circus250.com).
The Philip Astley Project is now working closely with local and national partners, including the V&A Museum in London and the New Vic Theatre’s ‘Circus Past, Present and Future’ project, supported by Arts Council England.
A couple of highlights for the year ahead include the development of a new town trail in Newcastle-under-Lyme – set to be launched in June. In May, meanwhile, the town will bring an array of circus performers to town centre bars and pubs for drinkers to watch while they enjoy Astley Ale or Tightrope Tequila!
Other key events scheduled to take place in Staffordshire this year will include:
NoFit State Circus’ LEXICON (28 March to 21 April)
For the first time, internationally-acclaimed NoFit State Circus set up tent in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and promote their six-months of public performance entitled LEXICON – a breathtaking celebration of circus theatre.
CIRCUS! (2April to 30 July )
In collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum, this outdoor photography exhibition presented in the heart of Newcastle-under-Lyme will showcase the V&A’s archive collection of circus material.
Philip Astley – his life and legacy (5 May to 15 July)
Visitors to Newcastle’s Brampton Museum can discover more about Astley’s connection to Newcastle-under-Lyme, his early life and the influences on his later career during this free 12-week exhibition.
Acéléré, Circolombia (9 May to 13 May)
Professional Colombian Circus School, which supports vulnerable and at-risk young people. They will present Pacifico, a new large-scale production in Newcastle-under-Lyme as part of the New Vic Theatre’s ‘Circus: Past, Present and Future’ programme.
Astley Evening Extravaganza (May)
An array of circus performers will visit town centre bars and pubs for drinkers to enjoy along with an Astley Ale or Tightrope Tequila!
Astley’s Astounding Adventures (13 July to 28 July)
A brand new play, written by Staffordshire-born Frazer Flintham, will dramatise Astley’s journey from humble beginnings to international impresario. Combining the thrill of the circus with the uniqueness of theatre-in-the-round, New Vic Artistic Director Theresa Heskins will direct this theatrical extravaganza.
Circus Party in the Park (14 July)
In partnership with Brampton Museum, an immersive theatrical and circus family experience especially for the Museum grounds.
AstleyFest (4 August)
This free festival will feature circus performances as well as also offer hands-on activities. Children and adults alike will love clowning around, trying their hand at circus skills – including juggling and spinning plates – and seeing awe-inspiring circus acts, while Newcastle’s The New Vic Theatre will host the first performance of Roll Up, Roll Up, a brand-new show developed with local writers, performers and choir members
PHOTO CREDIT: PhilipAstleyProject