Chiswick House Grounds, London
June 28, 2018
My Beautiful Circus by Gifford’s Circus celebrates the 250th anniversary of the great Philip Astley ‘s equestrian ballets (see note below), staged in Lambeth which soon added clowns and acrobats to the format and which is widely regarded as the birth of circus as we now know it. The show is a lovely in that it’s a modern circus in the old tradition. It should not be missed. Chiswick House Grounds is a lovely intimate setting too.
The continuing popularity of traditional circus is proven by Gifford’s, founded in only in 2000, who put horses back at the centre of the show. The dogs are a turkey, though. As with Zippos, another London favourite, the horses are glowing with health and are clearly trained using non-aversive methods.
My Beautiful Circus opens with half a dozen piebald and skewbald Shelties, worked by proprietor Nell Gifford. They produced the highlight of the evening in some lovely lateral work executed by that doyen of circus equestrianism Dany Cesar, riding a very handsome Lusitano in a very tight space indeed. His one-time changes were masterful.
Clowning has always been more popular in Europe than in the UK, where the darker side that it represents has often been subsumed into slapstick for children. Not so with Tweedy, a consummate performer, who combines Lecoq-style physicality with a prodigious smattering of musical and circus skills. He is at his best when exhibiting high wire skills by flying with a red bentwood chair and then executing a neat parody of Lisa Minelli in Cabaret as his acrobatics create an apparent attempt to extricate himself from its ‘clutches’ several feet above the ring or when, Les Dawson-like, he feigns inability to juggle then neatly flips a few boxes, barely less neatly than the actual juggler.
The ladies from the Dias Family are remarkable not so much for what they do as where and how they do it. Climbing up a ladder and executing a little light contortionism may not seem unduly impressive until it is noted that the free-standing ladder not only reaches well into the canopy of the big top but is balanced on one girl’s upturned feet. the stage management gingerly balances a very long piece of branched aluminium to ‘hand up’ and remove various props when, in one instance, the girl at the top balances upside down and twirls a baton using her feet. Bringing artistry into it all the way they do is a skill in itself.
The male members of the family perform a variation of a tumbling act with twist and triple turns again being executed from a base of upturned feet with most of the preparation seeming psychological. Their core strength is certainly in evidence as tumbles and turns rapidly roll from almost nowhere. A second tumbling act demonstrates some astonishing balances and more than one one-handed lift that would be the envy of many a Bolshoi danseur.
Russia, that marvellous breeding ground of unique circus performers, is represented by Diana Vediashkina who combines a career as a journalist with a small (literally) dog act. The miniature Dachshunds garnered predictable oohs and ahhs, but while no doubt convenient for touring, the dogs in-bred elongated backs make them appear distressingly achondroplastic. dreadful, Despite this, they coped well but the act is little more than can be seen regularly in the trick rings of companion dog shows and was rather bland.
One of the most enjoyable aspects traditional circus is the completeness of the self-contained world and the unrivalled proximity that it allows the audience, even if seated at the back. Circus also use live music, here a fine small brass band who played outside both before and after the performance (Eric Coates’ ‘Dambusters’ March’ was a real tearjerker, boys!) and the ‘inside’ band who made a fine fist of all their arrangements from Gershwin though 1950s favourites and even a little Khachaturian. Unfortunately, singer and front woman Nancy Trotter Landry’s gravelly voice didn’t do the musicians justice. I struggled to make out the words of the songs and speech much of the time. She gets the best frock despite stiff competition, though. All the costumes were lovely and carefully thought-out to create a taste of the 1930s-1950s.
Gifford’s tours with a chef, Ols Halas who produces some of the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten and where, if you are quick enough, you can book a full meal in the Circus Sauce tent worthy of many a gourmet restaurant.
Although the balmy summer evening cannot be guaranteed, My Beautiful Circus would put smiles on faces and gasps in throats, anytime; even in a torrential downpour.
When Astley’s near-contemporary David Garrick brought Shakespeare back to the London stage, it sparked the fetishisation of Shakespeare that also saw the divisions grow between what was perceived as ‘legitimate’ drama and, by inference, ‘lesser’ forms of entertainment that had not received a royal licence of which circus was one.
Astley also toured in the UK and abroad and that is also very much a tradition that circuses have adopted in the UK, although his erstwhile protégé and rival Hughes built a permanent venue in near St George’s Circus which itself became the first to be called a ‘circus’, but which was eventually converted into a ‘legitimate’ drama theatre. Fires eventually consumed Astley’s London venue but he established 18 others throughout the UK, some permanent, and circus was to live on.
Circus has weathered storms literal and metaphorical, not least regarding the use of animals, and the safety of performers. The latter has become prominent with the arrival of cirque nouveau and companies such as Archaos and their notorious chainsaw juggling act, and the three fatalities suffered by Cirque du Soleil in as many decades.
Gifford’s Circus is at Chiswick House, London to July 9, then touring. Ticketing is via the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. For more details and to but tickets, click here.