Fennells Farm, Stroud; 11am, 25th September 2016
It’s the last day of their season, and Giffords Circus take us on a joyful bound through a series of Old West inspired scenes. The tent is dressed with tasselled lampshades and geometrically disrupted circle motifs; an elaborate set alongside the ringdoors forms the Dodge City Saloon on one side, and an old gold-panner’s shack on the other, complete with flowing water feature.
Wild West inspired acts have been a feature of circus since William Cody’s Buffalo Bill show took off across the States in the late 1800s. Trick riding, so often associated with cowboys and rodeos, was of course a feature of circus since its foundations in 18th Century London. There is an established cross over between the two worlds which makes the theme a naturally successful one, and the dubious representations of American natives that once pervaded such entertainments are politically omitted in favour of story snatches that show us pilgrim settlers, the local watering hole, and the ‘poor li’l critter’ Tweedy, who blithely stumbles about hoping to make his fortune in gold, but earns instead the warm laughter of the crowd.
Puritan sisters Prudence and Chastity (Stephanie Chisholme and Erin Cervantes) instruct us in how to behave properly, before later repenting their sins of prudery and shedding their inhibitions in an aerial hoop duet that celebrates the body rather than hiding it away, relishing human closeness in a stylish contrast of straight legs and backs against the circular equipment.
The traditional ringmistress role is handed over to saloon proprietor Sasparilla Sal (Nancy Trotter Landry), who also kicks up her heels and sings with the band. Musical Director and composer, James Keay, leads the band through Western classics and American folk – and a musical theatre mash-up of Calamity Jane numbers – which keep the tone engaging and light.
When Lilian Konyot presents her slowly looping lasso tricks, the upbeat tune of Rawhide helps keep the pace of the show until she speeds up to the smaller whirling rope wheels. The staid sophistication of her presentation, in this and her later pistol-twirling number, suggests that Lili the clown may have been put away with childish things, although I hope to see her return some day.
Animal appearances are mostly tuned around the snapshots of cutesy-kitsch the internet has taught us to love – a chicken runs around the ring fence, a small dog steals a sausage, or the lanky Sheriff (Virgile Elana) rides on a stubby donkey. (As in Robin Hood’s story, he is the figure we love to boo after outlaw El Gifford shares her ill-gotten gold with us, and it’s a shame the show never returns to this story thread). The covered wagon is drawn by a buffalo – developed very realistically from the traditional pantomime horse design – and real horses, ridden by Dan Fortt and Dany Cesar, line-dance to the witty calls of Handsome Dan (aka singer Spenser Moran).
Tom Richmond’s lighting design brings a fireside glow to the ring more than once and, with the sawdust darkened to the sands of a nighttime prairie, real flaming torches are used to light an archway through which Cesar rides on his Albino Andalusian, synthesising outrageous daring-do in the safety of the circus ring. A mischievous pet raccoon is puppetted by clown Tweedy, and a faux-fur wolf-suit brings another creature to life in the arena.
We hear how Sasparilla Sal had a fiesty sister (also played by Landry) who ran away to live ‘free as a bird’ in Death Valley. Dressed in suede with braided hair she skips firmly around the campfire manipulating a small hoop, adding more to create elegant shapes that, once or twice, give us a glimpse of wings.
We see snippets of unfolding love stories between members of the Konjowoch Troupe, dressed as early settlers in pastel bonnets and longjohns (Lindsay Pugh‘s costume designs are gorgeously detailed). A duet of acrobalance poses is designated as a love story by this foreshadowing, and the softening of music and lights. White costumes against dark skin add a tone of purity and simplicity to the pair’s chaste love in the barren but promise-filled landscape of the New World.
During the interval, the greener British countryside provides a backdrop to the wooden wagons and white tents that offer gift-shop merchandise, wood-fired pizza or tin-mugs filled with tea from a giant pot. The raised toilet block is supplemented by a row of portaloo cabins and, despite the sell out show, there never seems to be much of a queue.
The second half begins with some Strictly Come Hoedown, and the circus tradition of singing happy birthday to members of the audience is upheld. A saloon bar is set in front of the ringdoors, laying the scene for a fabulously integrated set of object manipulation skills: from Tweedy’s hide-the-lady (a la Tommy Cooper) to the four Konjowoch ladies’ hanky spinning on and off of a pair of foot-juggling trinkas, via Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam‘s bar-steward flaring, with bottles disguised as juggling clubs and juggling clubs disguised as bottles. Konyot’s gun-slinging rounds off the saloon shenanigans, finishing with some inspired silliness as the bar transforms into a Tweedy-faced version of the fairground shoot-the-clown target practise game.
The Painted Wagon is the fifth show Cal McCrystal has directed for Giffords and he manages to blend the skill acts easily into the theatrical frame, a touch of humour never far away. No writer is credited in the programme, but the scripted jokes and banter are particularly strong.
With a whole lotta yeehahs we are drawn through a marriage celebration played out by the Konjowoch males on dual-rigged Chinese poles. They climb and slide up and down the poles in passing pairs, sometimes leaping across the gap from one to the other; it’s an exciting use of the equipment, and there’s a suggestion of what a mash-up between their technique and jugglers’ patterning could look like that makes me keen to see how the Ethiopian troupe continue to develop their act.
The finale is a toe-tapping barn dance to Cotton-Eyed-Joe, and I enjoy being able to jig around in my standing position at the back of the stands (this show regularly sells out – get your tickets in advance folks!). The show is brought to a close with a festive feel as the company take their applause and invite the audience to join them in the ring for a dance, and the tent is left buzzing after a really joyful Sunday morning celebration of the myths of the Old West.