Stone’s Lord of the ring

Circus draw: Nicholas Richardson as circus founder Philip Astley
(image courtesy of the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme).

Stone-born dramatist Frazer Flintham’s play about the Staffordshire man who founded the circus drew standing ovations at Newcastle’s New Vic Theatre.

‘Astley’s Astounding Adventures’ tells the story of the all-but-forgotten Sergeant Major Philip Astley, an accomplished horseman and daring cavalryman, later trick-rider and circus owner, who was born in Newcastle in 1742.

“I’d not heard of Philip Astley until New Vic Artistic Director Theresa Haskins asked me to write a play about him,“ Flintham admitted. 

Fortunately, he was able to turn to the Newcastle-based Van Buren family of magicians and circus performers who have have kept Astley’s memory alive and campaigned to celebrate this year’s 250th anniversary of his invention of the circus ring.

Astley was a commanding presence, over six feet tall, with a muscular build and a booming voice. During the Seven Years War, he rescued the Duke of Brunswick from behind enemy lines, led his platoon to capture several enemy flags fighting on even when his horse was shot from under him.

But Act One finds a peacetime Astley struggling to earn a living as a riding instructor and trick rider in the marshes east of London. He was never able to get rid of his Potteries accent to sound like the gentleman he aspired to be. Things look up,   however, when he marries the accomplished equestrian Patty Jones. She trick-rode with him, even when heavily pregnant!

After the birth of their son John in 1768, Philip and Patty opened a riding school in Half Penny Hatch, London, where they gave lessons and demonstrated their own trick riding. Experimenting with various sizes of performance ring, Philip discovered that a 42 feet diameter offered the best balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces. 42 feet is still the standard ring size in circuses worldwide.

In 1769 Philip moved his ‘amphitheatre’ to a timber yard south of Westminster Bridge, where he built the world’s first roofed-over circus ring. He brought in clowns, acrobats and jugglers, introducing the acts in his military uniform of both red coat and white breeches, the ringmaster’s costume down to this present day.

But the Astleys’ fortunes see-sawed. Seen as a dubious art form, circus initially failed to attract ‘respectable’ audiences. Fellow equestrian Charles Hughes joined them in the business, only to set up as a competitor on their doorstep. Both enterprises battled with the Lord Chamberlain’s office to keep their entertainment licences. Worst of all, Astley’s candle-lit amphitheatre burnt down.

But donations from supporters and the prestige of a command performance before George III at Richmond Palace enabled the Astleys to tour their circus around Europe, where they built no fewer than 19 amphitheatres. Besides introducing circus to such countries as France and Russia, Philip wrote and published books on humane  horse-training methods, his military experiences and magic.

In 1841 Astley died of stomach gout in Paris, where his grave sadly no longer exists.

Theresa Haskin’s no-holds-barred production uses clowning, fire dancing, escapology and                 breathtaking aerial acrobatics to  conjure up Astley’s amphitheatre, both on and above the New Vic’s appropriately circular stage.

Flintham skilfully fuses drama with historical fact, especially in the love duet between Nicholas Richardson’s Astley and Danielle Bird (Patty Jones), where the pair execute a spellbinding series of aerial embraces entwined in long red silks descending from the flies.

This is Flintham’s second main-stage production at the New Vic, the first being his Staffordshire Hoard-inspired 2015 one-act play ‘The Throne’. Like Astley, Flintham left the Potteries to make his career in London, where he was amazed to realise that during his many walks along the South Bank of the Thames, he was passing over the site of Astley’s original amphitheatre.

“It is wonderful that Newcastle-under-Lyme is the focus of the Circus 250 festival – and that Astley at long last is getting the recognition he deserves for pioneering an art form which has enthralled and entertained millions of people the world over.”