The Fantastical Circus Scrapbooks and Collection of Arthur Fenwick (Family La Bonche)

Having debuted at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum on Wednesday 30th October, I saw ‘The Fantastical Circus Scrapbooks and Collection of Arthur Fenwick’ at the Great North Museum: Hancock for its afternoon show on Sunday 3rd November. Family La Bonche, Circus Central’s youth circus group, comprises talented youngsters aged 9-22 who, as founder Madame La Bonche puts it, “have adopted the circus as their way of life”. Alongside an exhibition detailing the little known yet fascinating history of the circus in the North East, the troupe are set to perform a spectacle of their greatest tricks.

The main feature of the exhibition – a timeline detailing eight centuries of the North East’s circus history – runs the length of the back wall. The earliest entry is marked 1237 and details the amusingly named Hob of Pelaw who, by all accounts, was employed by the prior of Durham to entertain the monks. He fell to his death whilst walking the tight wire between two of the notorious cathedral’s towers. Moving on a few hundred years and it seems the circus was still a hugely dangerous industry to be involved in: between 1830 and 1870, Martini Maccomo was a well-known lion and tiger tamer. Thankfully, we learn that his death was less tragic – rheumatic fever in 1871, entirely unrelated to his circus career.

Next comes information on the man behind the entire exhibition – the infamous Arthur Fenwick. Fenwick first encountered the circus whilst sitting under a tree, where he met a boy who had run away from the fairground. Inspired by his story, 19 year old Fenwick purchased a green caravan with yellow wheels; by the time he turned 20, he had set off on a whirlwind six years of travelling with the circus. Even when he returned, he did not sever all ties with the circus – far from it. Every year he was reunited with his friends at Newcastle’s infamous Town Moor.

To be truthful, I am surprised by the exhibition: it amazes me that the North East is so deeply rooted in circus history. Credit to them, Family La Bonche has gone all out in their research – the exhibition is fantastically well detailed.

After being bowled over by the exhibition, it is on with the show! The young performers file in dressed in an array of colourful costumes before launching into their first demonstrations. I am amazed at the skill of the unicyclists, weaving in and out of one another with the expertise of professionals. As someone who would have as much grace as a wounded elephant when attempting such a feat, I am more than a little jealous.

For me, a real highlight of the show is a supremely talented ballerina, who performs an impressive en pointe routine first with a ribbon then in collaboration with the unicyclists. I would watch this space – she seems set to be a real talent for the future! The same can be said for a young girl who, in clown costume, takes the lead with audience interaction: she dashes off an amusing rhyme detailing the story of Alan Fenwick with unfaltering fluency and confidence – definitely a budding actor!

Two tricks in the show had my heart hammering with the nerves: the first, a sequence involving performers balancing on a set of nails; the second, a brilliantly executed routine by young acrobats swinging in synchronised shapes from trapezes. As with every section of the show, these were performed to a standard not far off a professional level.

Overall, Family La Bonche deserves to be thoroughly commended for their efforts in both their circus exhibition and performance. Their determination and sheer hard work is evident throughout. Their efforts have culminated in an event that is fantastic family fun, a pleasure to watch for all ages. Bring on the next show!

Review by Beth Allison