Roll up, roll up to the Southbank this summer and you’ll find a world of freakery, and we’re not just talking about the riverside buskers. From now until September, the London Wonderground festival’s circus tent will host death-defying stunts and the body-bendingly bizarre – and make no mistake, this isn’t fun for all the family.   

The Wonderground’s feast of cutting-edge shows is all part of a move towards a wholly new kind of circus, reckons former Australia’s Got Talent finalist Danik Abishev, whose hand-balancing antics will wow at the fest’s headline show, Limbo.

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Set in a world between heaven and hell, it’s inhabited by a sexy cast of characters including acrobats, illusionists and aerialists who’ll be putting their lithe bodies through the paces to awe the audience. 

“This is a new breed of circus and the crowd is going to be shocked to see certain things,” the 27-year-old promises. “I can’t say too much about the show, but it’s a lot more edgy.”Abishev is certainly an authority on the subject, having trained for Russia’s state circus from the age of four (he was born and raised there).

Abishev then moved to Australia in 1996, where he toured the country in a circus troupe with his father, and in 2009 reached the grand final of AGT as a solo act. Unfortunately, doing a handstand on a burning ladder kept upright by his balancing skills alone wasn’t quite enough to impress the judges (begin booing loudly here).

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Still, Abishev is well on his way to realising the ambition he revealed on the talent show – to become “Australia’s favourite circus freak”. Limbo got rave reviews at the Adelaide Festival and is set for a similar response here.

“When I was young and travelling with the traditional circus, people would yell at me that I was a freak,” Abishev says. “I’m proud of that label now. It empowers you. I even have a T-shirt that says it!” 

Another sexy show to catch this month is The Bleeding Hearts Circus at Hoxton Hall. The twisted passions, soaring highs and crushing lows of love will be played out on the trapeze, silks and aerial hoops, and it’s brought to the stage by Airealism, a company made up of performers who have day jobs and run away with the circus by night.

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Sophie Pelham (above), 33, from Bromley, works in employment law but will be performing “a cheeky trapeze act” exploring what happens when you have “three people on one bar” (remember the theme of Bleeding Hearts).

She says she got addicted to flying on the trapeze after giving it a go as an after-work hobby, and has been honing her skills over five years.

“When you first start, it’s so painful,” she tells TNT. “Your skin tears and your muscles ache. It’s an extreme sport that you do several times a week.”

But the “tough love” of circus folk kept her focused: “You will fall off, but you have to get straight back up. You show these guys your bruises and they’ll just say, ‘I’ve seen worse.’”

More sexy circus in London>

 

Limbo. Until Sep 29. 7.15pm. £15+.  
Jubilee Gardens, SE1 8XX  
londonwonderground.co.uk  
Tube | Westminster

Bleeding Hearts Circus.
May 30-June 1. 7pm. £10+.  
130 Hoxton Street, N1 6SH  
hoxtonhall.co.uk  
Tube | Hoxton

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Circa: Beyond – South Bank

As the name suggests, this isn’t a normal circus show. Forget trapeze artists and jugglers, and think more Alice In Wonderland meets your worst Dali-esque nightmares (see above), with an animalistic spin that encourages you to embrace the beast within. This is contemporary circus that melds sounds and performance with acrobatic feats par excellence to transpose you to another realm altogether. 

£15.50+. Jun 3-23, times and dates vary 
London Wonderground, SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
londonwonderground.co.uk

 

 

Flown – South Bank

As you’d no doubt imagine from a show with this title, Flown is all about performance that’s up in the air. Circus troupe Pirates Of The Carabina lead you on this absorbing night which they say is largely unplanned. The dancers, stuntmen, acrobats, aerialists and musicians set out to wow in a show originally commissioned for the Glastonbury Festival. Expect flying ironing boards and more. Bold.

£15.50+, June 2-22, times vary 
Udderbelly, SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
underbelly.co.uk

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Tumble Circus: This is what we do for a living – South Bank

Sure to make you feel like you lead the most tedious and adventure-lacking existence by comparison, the two carnies behind this show have travelled the world with their circus comedy, high-wire traversing, gravity-taunting lunacy. This awe-inspiring show will feature flying hula hoops, slapstick acrobatics, aerial rope work and daring double trapeze, too.  

£15.50+, Aug 6-9, 9.15pm SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
londonwonderground.co.uk

 

Belle Epoque Circus Party – Holborn

The folks behind the Prohibition Party and the Blitz Party bring the shady circus underworld of 19th-century Paris to Bloomsbury Ballroom, with acrobatics and dancefloor-filling tunes ‘til late.  

£20, June 15, 8pm 
Bloomsbury Square, WC1B 4DA  
Tube |  Holborn  
belleepoqueparty.com

 

Inverted + bikes and rabbits – North london

Get twice the thrills at this circus double bill, featuring emerging circus company Inverted’s acrobatics and contemporary aerial bicycle performances from the intriguingly named Bikes & Rabbits. 

£10, Jun 14, 8pm 
269a Archway Road, N6 5AA  
Tube | Highgate  
jacksonslane.org.uk

 

The Double R Club – South Bank

One of the capital’s edgiest shows, the back-to-back London Cabaret Awards winner for Best On-going Production takes cues from master of the surreal David Lynch for sketches and performances that push the boundaries of your sanity. Host is the “so fuckin’ suave” Benjamin Louche.

£17.50, Jul 12, 10.45pm & Aug 2, 9.15pm 
London Wonderground, SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
londonwonderground.co.uk 

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Circus Maximus – South Bank

Not just a circus show, but a circus competition in which 20 of the UK’s hottest, most gravity-defying, health and safety flouting acts will be performing not just for your entertainment, but a prize of £5000 and a chance to develop a show with Udderbelly. So it’s high stakes. Fire-breathers, tightrope walkers and all manner of watch-through-your-fingers acts will be competing for your votes and a place in the final five. 

£15.50, May 10-June 1, various times. 
Udderbelly, SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
facebook.com/circusmaximusuk

 

Falling Up – North London

All-female group Mimbre have toured internationally with Falling Up – retooled slightly for this Gothic church venue – fusing acrobatics, theatre and dance.

£10, Jun 19, 8pm 
269a Archway Road, N6 5AA  
Tube | Highgate  
jacksonslane.org.uk

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Cirque du Cabaret – South Bank

This show floored the crowds and enjoyed a sell-out run in the Spiegeltent as part of last year’s Wonderground, as well as a residency at London’s prestigious burlesque house Pigalle. 

Back this year for a short five-night run only, this is sure to be in popular demand, so get in quick to avoid missing the burlesque, comedy and circus genius that makes up each one-off presentation. Saw it last year? You can keep coming back – no two shows are ever the same!  

May 31, Jun 28, Jul 19, Sep 20 & 28. 10.45pm  
London Wonderground, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
londonwonderground.co.uk

 

The Tiger Lillies: Live in concert – South Bank

Inspired by pre-war Berlin and the spikier side of Seventies punk (with some suitably ghoulish Gothic overtones, to boot), alt-cabaret superstars the Lillies are not for the faint of heart. Macabre, mysterious and full-on mental, their three shows are ones not to miss this summer …  if you can hack it! 

£17.50, Jun 7-9, 9.15pm 
London Wonderground, SE1 8XX  
Tube | Waterloo  
londonwonderground.co.uk

 

Burlesque or Bust – West End

Cabaret and burlesque star Sapphira and her Showgirls (below) have been on Australia’s Got Talent and sold out Melbourne’s Red Bunnies. They now bring their show – about their search for ‘heartthrob’ Richard Branson, who is a big fan of the gals – to London. 

£15, May 26, 5pm Madame Jojo’s, 
8-10 Brewer Street, W1F 0SE  
Tube | Leicester Square  
madamejojos.com


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How like an Angel – Barbican

This is the first collaboration between UK-based vocal ensemble I Fagiolini and Australian company Circa. The vertiginous show sees six acrobats/dancers/people with far too much upper body strength descend and contort between the roof and stage, accompanied by live spiritual music. It’s choral chorus clashing with contemporary circus, completely unique and totally ace.  

£20, Jun 25-28, Tue & Thu 9pm;
Wed & Fri 8pm & 10pm 
Silk St, EC2Y 8DS  
Tube | Barbican  
barbican.org.uk

 

Cirque du Soleil: Alegria in London – Across London

‘Alegria’ means joy or happiness in Spanish, and you’ll not find a more fitting word to describe this, one of the famed Canadian circus and performance company’s early shows (it premiered in 1994).

There will be acrobats, knife throwers, fire jugglers, as well as loads of clowns and musicians, wrapped up in a powerhouse, sensory overloading show themed around the energy of youth, stuffed to the brim with wow-factor stunts and skill. If proof were needed for why Soleil is one of the world’s biggest circus acts, you’d find it here. An utterly joyous, arty spectacle.

£45+, Jul 18-21. Times vary 
The O2, SE10 0DX  
Tube | North Greenwich  
theo2.co.uk 

Jul 24-28.
Times vary Wembley Arena, HA9 0AA  
Tube | Wembley Park  
wembleyarena.co.uk 

 

Twisted Circus Bank Holiday Special – Holborn

Fire breathers, snake charmers, stilt walkers and contortionists entertain at this mega-party, also kicking out two rooms of music, from Nineties and club classics to house.   

£10+, May 26, 9pm 
Bloomsbury Ballroom, WC1B 4DA  
Tube | Holborn 
xclusivetouch.fatsoma.com 

 

Boom & Bang Circus – Leicester Square

Burlesque star Kitty Bang Bang (The Hurly Burly Show) and cabaret producer Bioux Lee Hayes (Boom Boom Club) bring you this new night of circus cabaret and sideshow freakery. Cheeky. 

£10+, Thur & Fri, 11pm 
Hippodrome Casino, WC2H 7JH 
Tube | Leicester Square  
hippodromecasino.com

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Twisted Voodoo – Central London

This weekly dinner and show (dinner optional) features belly dancers, fire breathers, and intimidating strong men in an extreme circus experience. For those looking for a little ‘down time’ amidst the body-challenging carnage, there are also burlesque acts to add seductiveness to the evening.

This week’s acts are Abi Collins, Leah Debrincat, Pizie Le Knot, Missy Fatale, Jolie Pappilon and Missy Macabre.

£20, Thursdays, from 6.30pm 
Proud Cabaret, EC3R 7AH  
Tube | Monument  
proudcabaretcity.com

 

Cirque Alfonse: Timber! – South Bank

Canadian circus family Cirque Alfonse – the line-up stretches from a toddler to the 66-year-old grandfather – are coming to London with brand new show Timber!, guaranteed to make you look totally differently at the lumberjack community.

Juggling chainsaws and axes, gravity-defying stunts, dance, folklore storytelling and traditional music (think harps, banjos and the like) – this is the men of the mountain in ways you never imagined possible. 

£32, Jul 10-31, 7.30pm 
Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX 
Tube | Waterloo 
southbankcentre.co.uk

 

Photos: Chris Taylor; Steve Ullathorne; David Solm