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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… the circus is coming back after four damaging months in lockdown. So how are staff and performers at the country’s last remaining permanent venue preparing – and will the audience roll up?
As a cloud swing trapeze artist, Lucy Ladbrooke performs on a looped rope, high above the heads of the audience.
But during lockdown, there were more lows than highs.
She found herself “stranded in a showground in Shropshire” with a touring production – and a two-year-old in tow.
“We were unable to move from our caravans and trailers. Everything stopped – we couldn’t even train,” she said.
“When you’re living at work and working at work, it’s particularly difficult.”
Like other theatres and performance venues, Great Yarmouth’s Hippodrome has been given the green light to reopen from 1 August, and Lucy is relishing training and performing once again.
“I just want to get up there and start practising,” she said.
“There’s a lot of muscle memory in what I do, so once I get up I’ll be fine.”
Returning to the Norfolk venue would be “like coming home”, she added.
“My mum was a swimmer here before I was born, so it’s great to be here, and quite emotional to bring my daughter.”
Her partner, fire-eater Antonio Candella, has also found lockdown hard.
“I was restless, anxious, itching to go and trying to find something to keep me occupied,” he said.
“I was worried about finances, about my career – and the actual industry itself. Will theatrical entertainment still be a thing after this?
“If Britain didn’t have theatre or the circus, I don’t know what this country would be like.”
When the pandemic began, the Hippodrome was preparing for the Easter show Pirates Live. But with the set built and rehearsals about to begin, it all stopped.
The circus furloughed 15 box office, technical and ancillary staff, amid fears arts venues would struggle to emerge from lockdown at all.
Ringmaster, producer and impresario Jack Jay took the baton from his father Peter, who bought the historic venue in 1979 and is now its artistic curator.
Carrying on the family business after lockdown means accepting a new way of working.
The venue’s usual capacity has been reduced from 900 to 300. It typically gets 10,000 people through the doors each season, but that will fall by two-thirds this summer.
“The nature of the circus means there’s loads of space between the audience and the acts in the ring,” said Jack.
“A lot of performing ensembles are families who are already in their own bubbles.
“We don’t want to drop the standards, but it needs to work.”
This grand Art Nouveau venue, built in 1903 and tucked away behind an amusement arcade, remains one of only three purpose-built circuses in the world where the stage sinks to reveal a full swimming pool.
The “quick and dramatic” transformation will now take place before the audience’s eyes, and the show will last 70 minutes, with no interval.
“From the moment the lights go down and the show starts, it will feel as it always does,” said Jack.
“This place is doing what it’s always done: putting on a show.
“We want it to be an escape, but we have to be sensitive to the fact that this has been a terrible thing for lots of people.
“Kids, especially, are trying to navigate all of it. There’s something to be said for letting them see and hear a fun side.”
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Co-hosting the show will be Jack’s comedy partner of 10 years, Scottish comic Johnny Mac.
“It was strange when Pirates didn’t happen. As a performer it was nerve-wracking – I had a whole year’s work put on ice,” he said.
“It is so nice to be back.”
Jack’s brother Ben, general manager, said customers would notice changes in the auditorium – but not the show itself.
“The main factor is the spacing between the seats: we’re using every other row,” he said.
Two entrances will prevent everyone congregating in the foyer, seats have been removed to create room to pass others and the auditorium will be thoroughly sanitised between shows.
“Importantly, it’s a place where customers can feel safe but there’s still enough people to have a really good atmosphere,” he said.
Trevor Fuller, from nearby Hopton-on-Sea, first attended the Hippodrome aged five or six with his grandmother.
Now 44, he is a regular visitor with his daughter Lily, five, and partner Paula.
“When you walk in, you’re immediately hit with the smell of popcorn and you think ‘Yes, we’re at the circus!'” he said.
“You go through and then you get the smell of chlorine from the water. I think Lily forgets that the floor drops away and it will be flooded.
“It’s amazing to watch her face when it happens.”
The family is planning to go to the show in the second week of August.
“We know the Hippodrome will do everything as well as they possibly can within current guidelines,” he said.
“I don’t think that will in any way take away the magic you get as a family. We know it’s going to be an incredible show.”
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