The Last Waltz at The Winter Gardens for Showzam!

“Those were the days, they say.”

The Ring Master leans over the balcony. Resplendent in red and black, he directs the audience towards the fantastical acts which obligingly appear from behind the quaint, late Victorian fairground set. He is a charming, smooth-voiced Tom Waits; hip flask always on hand. The Ring Master narrates the dreamlike sequences with an eloquent combination of rhyming prose and song. Smiling, he waves his cane at the audience and continues:

“These are the days and it is us who must bring the carnival back to town.”

Further along the balcony, a five piece band stirs into life: piano, double bass, trumpet, guitar and violin play familiar tunes from the 1920s interspersed with more eerie melodies with vocal accompaniment. Among the curious crowd below, performers begin to parade in costume. They enact short theatrical pieces and interact with the audience. All of the acts are firmly cemented in Victorian Blackpool and the Golden Age of Circus.

The Last Waltz
The Last Waltz

When you book to see The Last Waltz you are booking to see a myriad of acts. The ‘Shining Starlight Sisters’ are straight from 1925 and they spin, like beautiful birds, in hoops 20 feet above the stage. The tightrope walker feigns insecurity before balancing on his knees, facing the crowd. He slowly leans forwards in a manoeuvre which seems to defy gravity. A young woman with a wonderfully cheeky expression spins a dizzying number of hula hoops around her torso. All of the performers are decked in contemporary costume and their presentation is slick and well-rehearsed.

Around the edges of the Olympia Hall, the side-shows lure the audience with bright lights and outgoing characters so that there isn’t a dull moment in this performance. As well as a sweet stall and a bar selling beer, wine and soft drinks, there are the old fashioned arcade amusements, fortune tellers, a photo booth, a love boat feature and a freak show. The latter has a variety of spectacles on offer throughout the evening, including a contortionist ‘bird woman’ and a living mermaid.

Among the crowds, the gentleman on his piano-bicycle plays old folk tunes as he pedals in his Chaplin-esque attire. His music provides another layer of spectral sensation to the illusory scene. There are moments when, given a second bottle of beer, you could forget the outside world entirely. Such is the cumulative effect of the manifestation.
Punch and Judy enact scenes of familiar spousal abuse before they are joined by the policeman, complete with truncheon, and the crocodile. The string of sausages and the baby both meet with unfortunate accidents in this most bizarre of theatrical traditions. Italian-sounding gentlemen offer rides in the love boat and I enjoy a bizarre conversation, carried out in character, with one such gentleman on the possibility of using the threat of the crocodile to persuade couples to make love in his boat, the end being possibly nigh.

After the spectacles of the trapeze above the crowd. After the giggling flappers have danced and cartwheeled. After the gentleman on his bicycle, fitted with an easel, has circled the gentleman waving a cane. After the chap on his piano-bicycle has crept up to the bar to sing “How can a fella be happy when happiness costs such a lot”, and a lithe figure has spun like a weightless slip of silver above the stage, then the finale arrives.

A woman in a long, floating white dress dances, suspended at her waist. A man in a suit walks across the room, above the audience’s heads, on a tightrope. A girl sits on a rope swing far up towards the ceiling, making hearts lurch, and men in smart, grey suits bounce up and down, conducting a performance that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary dance troupe. There are girls who dance up the walls, perpendicular to the floor, and dancing couples who take it in turns to ‘fly’ above each other’s heads. The movements are slow and match the hypnotic solo female voice above the music. Gradually, the action quickens, mirroring the music’s pace. The moves become more frenetic. There’s a burst of red.

“Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

The Ring Master speaks to the awe-struck audience.

“Life is for living.”

The Last Waltz is on until Saturday 23rd February and performances start at 8pm. You can purchase tickets on the Showzam website or from the ticket booth outside the Olympia Hall at The Winter Gardens.

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