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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Gifford’s Circus: the country circus nobody should miss


Posted on Jul 16th, 2011 in Featured, Travel, UK fun and days out

Napoleon prances round a picture of Russia, throwing knives at it from his mouth. A woman called The Comet mounts a board seated on the shoulders of two men and vaults 15 feet in the air, doing breathtaking flips. Can’t quite place the story? It’s War and Peace, Gifford’s Circus-style.
Where other circuses might content themselves with a loose theme of, oh, “the jungle” or, even more simplistically, “the circus”, this year Nell Gifford’s troupe of acrobats, actors, horsemen and musicians have soared much much higher, performing an adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic.
“It’s not My Little Pony, is it?” said a woman behind me on the simple wooden benches under the big white tent.
How to describe how charming, richly textured and awe-inspiring Gifford’s Circus is? We’ve been attending for five years this country circus that tours Gloucestershire. Here is the experience: you park your car in a farmer’s field and walk toward the painted gypsy caravans while the sounds of a fairground band organ play. You squeeze together onto benches and watch the clown Tweedy (a clown familiar to all the nursery aged children in the audience) work the audience and lose his hat (“it’s behind you”). Then the show begins.



Two handsome young jugglers radiate charisma while tossing flaming torches. Acrobats do flips and swing high into the air just feet from where you sit. A tap dancing couple fills the tent with the cheerful rhythm of dance before the man dons taps on his hands and walks down a set of stairs, tapping out a beat upside down. Nell Gifford promenades on a horse while a hawk circles inside the tent.
Each act corresponds to the classic story. At one point the entire cast, including the live band, dons masks made of feathers, leaves and bits of fabric for a big song and dance. Then, like the Russian winter, it snows inside. Petya dies. (“Daddy, mummy, why did he die?” a 4-year-old asked, in what was certain to be her first lesson in Russian literature.)
The effect is transporting, overwhelming. Each time we go to the circus I feel so overcome by a combination of excitement and emotion that I get a lump in my throat and my vision turns watery.
Last year we also tried Circus Sauce, the pop-up restaurant (in the real sense) that the troupe operates in a temporary tent next to the kitchen caravan in the same field. We sat eating simple, tasty food served family-style, while the children played under the stars – occasionally running back to tell us they’d spied some of the performers relaxing.
That’s the thing about this circus. I could tell you all about the musical director and Nell’s talent scouting trips and much more, but all you need to is that when sit in the tent with 500 other people, just feet from the performers, you marvel at their talent and really do hold your breath during tricks that seem death defying. You feel like you’ve discovered something secret and special in the villages of the Cotswolds. You might still be able scoop up the few remaining tickets for this year’s season. Even if you can’t, mark your calendar and make plans for next year so don’t miss the magic.

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