An acrobat stands on a platform ten feet in the air. He looks down at the target, and with great care, steps off into the abyss. As his feet hit the purple cushion below, a seesaw catapults his fellow acrobat high up into the air. Describing an arc with an extended foot, he flips backwards, and lands in a small velvet chair, balanced on a pole, twenty feet high.
The audience roars with delight. It’s just after the interval, and the popcorn-candy-floss-sugar high has kicked in. The troupe then repeats the process, but this time they have swapped the seat at the top of the pole for a man. A second acrobat is flung backwards into the air, and lands standing upright on the man’s shoulders.
The crowd is beside itself with pleasure, and the performers are too. Their grins beam around the tent, drawing the ecstatic applause of the audience, as the snare drum rumbles on to the next cymbal crash.
This is Gifford’s Circus. Vintage, village green circus at its absolute best. Every summer since the year 2000, Gifford’s has toured its distinctive hand-painted wagons across the south of England. Bringing live music, incredible horsemanship, and death-defying acrobatics to parks and common grounds, they have garnered a reputation for incredible spectacle, and a warm, family atmosphere.
This year – 250 years since the very first circus was established by Philip Astley in London – their theme draws on an aesthetic synonymous with traditional circus, as well as the glamour of the 1930’s. The show is called My Beautiful Circus, and it looks absolutely stunning.
Led by the fabulous pianist, composer, and musical director James Keay, the band members take their places, impeccably attired in white tie and tails, in front of a huge, vintage Union Jack which drapes the back wall of the tent.
Greek designer Takis, is behind the costume and set, whose recent credits are as diverse as Opera Holland Park, and the UK tour of Hairspray. Even the Sicilian tumblers are in three-piece suits of royal blue with red piping, coupled with beautiful smoking jackets that might have come straight off the rail at Missoni.
The effortless glamour of the scene is soon shattered, of course, by the entrance of Tweedy the clown. For many years, Tweedy, has been the star of the show at Gifford’s, and this year is no different. From the moment he enters, leading his pet iron by its electric cable, he teases and tickles the audience into fits of laughter.
But don’t let his daft sense of humour fool you, Tweedy is a circus master, and an extraordinarily creative performer. It might be typical for the clown to get drawn into performing any number of dangerous acts for which he is unqualified, but the more Tweedy gets egged on, the more you feel he could execute everybody else’s act as well as his own. He tumbles, juggles, and bounces in a harness. At one point, having used his bagpipes as a primitive leaf blower, he shakes them out in order to give a rendition of Amazing Grace.
Director Cal McCrystal’s instinct for comedy is laced throughout the show. The slapstick routines from his work on One Man Two Guvnorsare nothing compared to the wildly funny sequences in My Beautiful Circus. But he is also responsible for drawing out the individual personalities of the troupe. He wrings performances from every member of the company – performers, horse riders, and musicians alike.
Nell Gifford, who established Gifford’s with her husband, and still performs every year, describes her circus as a global village. The entire team consisting of about 50 people from all walks of life, and all corners of the globe.
This small army of musicians, carpenters, designers, writers, acrobats, jugglers, farmers, and clowns raise the big top together, perform together, and live together in assorted wagons and caravans.
The uniqueness of a Gifford’s performance is that you can feel that sense of unity emanating from the entire company. Whether they are introducing a particular act, are central to its execution, or providing the musical accompaniment, the pleasure of performing together radiates from everyone who appears on stage.
Even the ring boys who roll out a huge circular carpet, and then gather it up again in record time, are given a round of applause. There is an incredible amount of skill on show, but it’s the heart, and humour, and inclusivity that will make you want to run away with them.
At the end of the show, Tweedy stands at the exit and waves the audience goodbye, but nobody wants to leave. “You cut me in half once in Chipping Norton” a woman says to him. Tweedy smiles. He’s got 14 shows this week, and there’s going to be a lot more where that came from.
My Beautiful Circus is touring throughout the summer. Click here for more details.