Fennells Farm, Stroud; 2:30pm, 14th May 2017
Dressing up boxes, jewels, and the English countryside are three of the prominent phrases that stick in my mind from the Giffords Circus website. And, as if by magic, they have all been brought to life in the quintessentially quaint circus pitch in the fields of Fennells Farm, and in the Elizabethan opulence that waits inside the bright white tent.
I was under the misapprehension that the theme for this year’s show, Any Port In A Storm, would be a sea-faring one, but what we get instead is the Renaissance fair of circuses, set inside the noble courts of 17th Century royalty. David Pillukat is the announcer of each new visitor hoping to win favour with the two princesses, circus matriarch Nell Gifford and singer Viktoria Murkinova. Today he is a little hoarse (and, later on, a little horse – but no spoilers 😉), and he’s helped out by members of the band. Double bassist Sam Bailey is a natural showman, and I hope the competitive play between the two will continue to develop as the tour goes on, particularly as it highlights the two interchangeable courts of England and Spain that we seem to be witnessing.
Glorious attention has been paid to the costuming (takis), whose brocades and ruffs fit well with the sawdust ring and candlesticks. Clown Tweedy is, as ever, the unassuming comedy star of the show, and this year the Brazilian Mustache Brothers provide a humorous Latin complement. Their slapstick may be rather more violent than we’re used to in a family entertainment, but their audience interaction is warm and their acrobatics fast-paced and slick.
Our other comedy delight comes from a coop of special breed chickens who strut around the ring to the band’s best Austin Powers rendition, or chase after Tweedy. When he’s not being hen-pecked, he’s being hurried off by a pair of flamenco dancers, or harassed by a series of live sound effects, all with hilarious aplomb, of course.
For the sixth year running, Cal McCrystal has directed, and his coup de grace is the final recap of the entire show, as performed by the four clowns. They return us to the juggling of Dany Reyes, infused with its breakdance moves; to the straps and hand balance routines of Sergii Poliakov (among the show’s technical highlights); to the fiesta spirit and summer heat of the Sol Troupe’s Russian swing act that barely has clearance under the tent’s canvas; to the same group’s impressive skipping feats; to the Roman riding – or, in this case, Hungarian – of Attila Csilo astride two cantering horses.
A couple of acts do give us an ocean theme, and just about manage to avoid feeling like hangovers from an abandoned idea. Alina Shpynova enters as Botticelli’s Venus and presents a nice Chinese pole number enhanced by her whippy hairography and winning persona. The odd occasion of The Procession of Burial of the Sardine allows Pillukat a mer-king moment through the air before he is returned to reality.
The 6-piece band switches between baroque classical and upbeat latin, with a couple of 80s pop hits thrown in for good measure. The whole show is dressed with such design panache that the acts appear more interesting than they would on their own merits. And therein lies Giffords’ magic. A swirl of skirts, gold capes and an impressive capoeira blast from the Mustache Bros that I wish there’d been more of lead us into the group dance finale. Outside, the merchandising tents and wagons wait, with gift-shop style souvenirs, wood-fired pizza, and tin mugs of tea. The Giffords experience is one of a kind, combining all the trappings of circus with all those of high-brow theatre. Or is it the other way round?