Our Most Memorable Circus Moments

“The circus is the only fun you can buy that is good for you.” Ernest Hemmingway.

Roll up! Roll up! Ahead of the anticipated return of Cirque Éloize to The Peacock this February, we’re looking back at some of the most memorable circus moments in the weird and wonderful history of both Sadler’s Wells and The Peacock, going all the way back to when we first opened our doors!

Old dogs, new tricks

Man’s best friend, and an array of other creatures have featured in productions dating right back to the beginning of Sadler’s Wells’ circus history. While we now have very strict regulations when it comes to using animals on stage, in days gone by these rules were sparse, and rarely even considered. Some of the fantastic animals to grace our stages as far back as the early eighteenth century included Scaglioni’s troupe of performing dogs, a singing duck, swimming horses (I  kid you not, Aqua Drama was a thing) and a very clever pig whose repertoire included telling the time and distinguishing colours. There’s also a pair of particularly naughty dolphins which we’ll come on to later…

Clowning around

Along with animal rights rules, child labour laws are also a missing feature in early circus history. In 1780 Jospeh Grimaldi, or “Joey” as this fabulous toddler clown was professionally known, made his debut on the Sadler’s Wells stage when his performative father took him on stage for his first “bow and first tumble” (We remember doing this in our living rooms performing as the Spice Girls.) By 1782 he was known as London’s leading clown and comic entertainer, enjoying success during residencies at both Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden Theatres. In one particularly memorable moment in Sadler’s Wells’ history, Joey was flung from the stage by his father whilst playing the part of a monkey, hanging onto his father’s waist by a chain and landing face down in the orchestra pit. 

Considered to be the original coiner of the pantomime catchphrase “Here we go again!” Joey leaves behind an extensive legacy of character acting, harlequinade and sheer youthful ambition in the most extreme form.

Here he is, looking like his best self.


Her Majesty’s Theatre has Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (great name, just saying), Theatre Royal Drury Lane has The Man in Grey – some frightening kind of knife-wielding skeleton – and the Adelphi Theatre has William Terriss, a celebrated actor murdered by a disgruntled co-star (brutal). But who has the most impressive theatre ghost in all of the West End? We do, we do! The Peacock has Flipper (not the Flipper, but an actual dolphin) embodying the dear departed spirits of Pennie and Pixie, two dolphins that lived in tanks beneath the stage with the sole purpose of jumping up to disrobe female performers in the then infamous nude revues.

Allegedly the ghost of Flipper haunts the hallowed halls of The Peacock in search of retribution for his untimely death at the hands of his negligent carers but there’s also a strange argument suggesting the dolphins were sold to a theme park in Yorkshire – we’ll let you make up your own minds. Either way, keep an ear out for Flipper’s strange squeaking on your next visit to The Peacock, apparently not dissimilar to that of a crying baby… spooky!

In recent years

Fast forward to this century and Sadler’s Wells is transformed into an international hub of dance performance in all its many malleable forms. With the root of circus in celebration of the body and its many marvellous capabilities, it seems the perfect companion for an organisation that rejoices in movement. We have had the pleasure of working with some incredible circus companies on an array of brilliant shows which look at the fantastic relationship between circus and dance. Some of our recent highlights include James Thiérrée – Au Revoir Parapluie, 2007, The 7 Fingers – TRIPTYQUE, 2016 and the smash hit from returning company Cirque Éloize – iD, 2016.

Don’t miss the incredible Cirque Éloize return to the Peacock with their spectacular new show, Hotel, in celebration of the company’s 25th Anniversary. For more information and to book tickets visit our website.

Cirque Éloize – Hotel, The Peacock, 20 Feb – 9 March.

Tickets from £15.