For great family entertainment, old-school, I don’t think you can do much better than Gifford’s Circus. We first encountered them in a very muddy field near my parents’ house in Cirencester a couple of years ago. They are fast becoming a staple of the West Country summer, touring around Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. This year they will have performed around 80 dates in 12 venues from Hay-on-Wye to Tackley.
I read the very entertaining blog by ‘Slouching Towards Thatcham’ yesterday – recounting an experiencesat a different circus last weekend. Sadly, that circus had a very small audience. I’m not at all surprised and extremely delighted to report that Gifford’s was sold out on Saturday afternoon, and by all accounts tickets are very hard to come by for the entire tour. It has become a word of mouth phenomenon in our part of the world. I definitely want to go again next year…
Nell and Toti Gifford started the whole affair 10 years ago, and indeed it seems to be Nell’s dream, supported at least in part by her husband’s landscaping business. It’s genuinely entertaining with plenty of laugh-out loud physical comedy and jaw-dropping physical performance. The Stage seems to agree with me, from its review in May…
Such is the creativity and passion poured into this production it is at first bewildering. Inside, the tiny white tent is gorgeously decorated, Lindsay Pugh’s exquisite outfits would make any Hollywood film costumier weep, and while most UK touring circuses have abandoned live music, Giffords has an exceptional 12-piece ensemble.
Nell scouts around the troupes of Europe to select her acts, and the full show credits 40 in the cast and crew, plus countless behind-the-scenes teams. Her eye for talent and understanding of what will entertain her audience is sharp. From the moment we crammed into the banked bench seating inside the Big Top, the cast were on show. Gabor Vosteen first appeared as a friendly, lanky man engaging nicely with the children in the front rows. Then he played the piano to accompany a rendition of Happy Birthday to three members of the audience.
But when his act finally started, we were in the palm of his hand. He started off with physical comedy and ‘speed’ recorder playing. Then he played the recorder through his nose. Then he played two recorders in harmony through his nostrils. Then he played 5 recorders at once. All interspersed with terrific physical comedy and perfect timing.
Sarah Schwarz was an amazing presence on the tightrope wire, sliding effortlessly into splits along the wire in a way that elicited a loud “NO WAY!” from my 8 year-old daughter, and winces from her mother. There were more exclamations when He Yuan rode a unicycle on a massive ball and when Bibi and Bichu juggled hats and clubs with amazing dexterity.
Olivier Taquin is a tremendous mime act, performing as a wooden marionette. His ability was astonishing. I swear I watched his eyes for 3 or 4 minutes without seeing him blink. I asked my younger daughter repeatedly if she thought he was real or a puppet, and she remained convinced he wasn’t a real person. He danced with a lady from the audience and had us rolling in the aisles with the brilliance of his timing.
But for me the highlight of Gifford’s Circus is the live band. There are 12 musicians in this year’s show, and they’re all fantastic. The sax section all played banjos as well, the backing singer girls also all played trumpet or flugel horn, and there was stunning scat singing and inventive percussion playing throughout. Everyone plays, everyone sings, everyone dances.
Gifford’s Circus is a brilliant throw-back to wholehearted entertainment without technology or gimmicks: it delivers an incredibly physical, visceral performance. The sheer vitality and energy is infectious and generates a huge emotional response. There must have been nearly 400 people in the tent, and I’m fairly certain everyone left the tent beaming with pleasure and barely noticed the persistent rain outside.
Yes, it’s truly that good.