Performance review: Son and Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus, Playhouse Theatre, QPAC

A Circa double bill featuring new work from First Nations-led ensemble Circa Cairns, and a family-friendly reimagining of Mozart and his music.
Circa. Image is a group of barechested acrobats holding up another performer on a dark stage.

Contemporary circus company Circa, created in 2004, is something of a Queensland institution. It performs throughout Australia and around the world, runs its own Circus Academy and pushes the boundaries of what we mean by “circus” – blending acrobatics, music, dance and more across genres ranging from peepshow to kids’ shows.

This Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) double bill reinforced how the company’s approach creates performances that bear originality and intimacy that is uniquely its own.


Circa Cairns is a First Nations-led initiative under the artistic direction of Wakka Wakka man Harley Mann. Son, which received its mainstage world premiere this season, told a story based on Mann’s own upbringing in a single-mother household.

Unfolding in the hours between sunset and sunrise, the 80-minute performance traced a boy’s path to manhood as he negotiated questions of masculinity, sexuality, culture and self, and reflected upon the relationship between fathers and sons. The mirrored cut-out paper doll-like figures stretching across the stage provided an early hint that this path would perhaps not conform.

Acrobatics, with its requirements of strength and trust (including self-trust), vulnerability and inevitable pain, proved an apt vehicle to explore the challenges of growing up, emphasised by the astonishing physical feats of the four male performers who moved across roles and art forms with expertise. The performance of David Kila Biondi-Odo was particularly compelling.

The musicians of female First Nations group Kardajala Kirridarra (Sandhill Women) formed a counterweight to the absent father. Singing in Mudburra and English, they gave a voice to the constant and frequently burdened work of maternal love.

There was much that was fresh and engaging about this production – including a winsome introduction from Mann himself – but the pacing could perhaps have been finessed. Technical elements also needed a rethink; the lighting design, reflecting the show’s night-time setting, meant that nuance was sometimes lost, while the sound volume of the nightclub scenes at the performance under review could have been challenging for some audience members.

Son received support from the Australian Government’s RISE Fund. This is exactly the sort of support that the arts should, like sport, be receiving more of. Ensuring the space to experiment and be ambitious is the type of investment that, come the Brisbane 2032 Summer Olympics, will see ensembles like this ready to perform for the world.

Created by: Harley Mann, Alexander Berlage and the Circa Cairns Ensemble with Kardajala Kirridarra
Co-Directors: Harley Mann and Alexander Berlage
Music Group: Kardajala Kirridarra
Lighting Designer: Alexander Berlage
Costume Designer and Co-set Designer: Isabel Hudson
Cultural Dramaturg: Uncle Raymond D Blanco
Ensemble: Harley Mann, David Kila Biondi-Odo, Edan Porter, Gusta Mara

Son was performed 22-25 November 2023 at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC.

Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus

Since its 2018 success at Edinburgh Fringe, Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus has been entertaining audiences around Australia, touring an impressive list of regional and rural communities. Designed for audiences aged three and above, its unique combination of acrobatics, magic, ballet, slapstick and classical music provided the QPAC audience with a joyous, if slightly bewildering introduction to the music of Mozart.

The eponymous Wolfgang (Paul O’Keeffe), having left behind his own century, made a chilly entrance via a refrigerator at the birthday party of a girl (Kathryn O’Keeffe) with no friends.

The birthday girl soon proved a spirited match for her uninvited guest who, not unlike younger members of the show’s target audience, played tricks, threw tantrums and got into all sorts of scrapes, as the pair cycled, balanced, jumped and flipped their way through a chocolate-box selection of the Köchel catalogue.

The recorded soundtrack was augmented by accordionist Gareth Chin, whose wry expressions as he wove (and occasionally adjudicated disputes) between the acrobats added to the fun.

Read: Performance Review: At the End of the Land, PICA Performance Space, WA

Wolfgang’s altercation with an uncooperative music stand brought on a theatre-wide fit of giggles, while the sight of him balancing on a chair, balanced on a chair, balanced on a chair (yes, three stacks of chairs), balanced on four champagne bottles was a spectacular feat likely to be the subject of many an attempted home re-enactment.

By playing with the notion of a musical score that leapt off the page and took on an acrobatic life of its own, Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus freed classical music performance from its usual solemnity and generated new perspectives on familiar works. Its daredevilry and humour, meanwhile, seemed destined to anchor Mozart and his music in the minds of those young audiences lucky enough to see it.

Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus
Created by: Yaron Lifschitz with Benjamin Knapton and the Circa Ensemble
Director: Yaron Lifschitz
Associate Director: Benjamin Knapton
Music: Mozart and Quincy Grant
Lighting Designer: Geoff Squires
Technical Director: Jason Organ
Costume Designer: Libby McDonnell
Assistant Costume Designer: Selene Cochrane
Artistic Consultants: Darcy Grant and Scott Witt
Ensemble: Paul O’Keeffe and Kathryn O’Keeffe

Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus was performed 24-26 November 2023 at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Gemma Betros is an historian, arts critic and writer based in Toowoomba, Queensland. She studied at the University of Queensland and the University of Cambridge, and has held academic posts in the UK, US, and Australia. Previous reviews have appeared in the Australian Book Review and Sydney Review of Books, where she was a 2021 Emerging Critics Fellow.