British circus was born in 1768, 250 years ago this year, near Waterloo Bridge in London when, on 9th January, entrepreneur Philip Astley drew out a 42-foot circle and filled it with jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strong men and bareback riders. I saw my first circus in 1959 - the famous Bertram Mills show, which fulfilled an annual winter season at Olympia in West London. Giffords Circus, run by Toti and Nell Gifford out of a farm in the Cotswolds, is not setting out to compete with that large-scale, fixed-base Olympia show, but what it has is heart, energy, empathy with its audience, and a willingness by its performers to multi-task. There's no question of artistes appearing, performing their act and retiring sharpish into their caravan to watch Coronation Street until it's time for a brief bow and a wave for the final parade. These guys were everywhere – performing, supporting other acts with their physical or moral presence, taking turns as ringmaster/mistress, and then singing and dancing, joined in the ring by dozens of the audience, to Khachaturian's 'Sabre Dance' for the last minutes of the finale.
The burgundy-painted caravans and wagons of this 18th Giffords summer tour, entitled My Beautiful Circus and directed by Cal McCrystal, came to University Parks on Thursday for the first of eleven shows over six days until 19th June. In their sparkling livery, several of them decorated with pictorial scenes by a young Picasso, the vehicles took over a segment of the Parks, with a throaty barrel-organ especially resplendent. The space was patrolled by a small army of meeters, greeters and programme sellers, in claret uniforms, sheer tights and traditional, plumed helmets, all friendly and welcoming.
Inside the Big Top, the interior displayed the usual imbalance of soaring canvas and acres of above-head space, bottomed by a relatively small sawdust performance arena. The canvas here was navy blue, and the entrance tunnel was topped by an expanse of Union Flag with a gilt royal crest. To one side played the terrific six-piece band, arriving in toppers and evening dress. Piano, drums and percussion oddities, guitar, double bass, banjo, trombone, trumpet and sax: I didn't know which to admire more - its brio or its versatility. 30s lounge music standards, jazz tunes, Gershwin classical/jazz crossover, Russian ballet music, Queen pastiche – all were fresh with clarity and vim beyond the circus norm, and the strumming rhythms evoked the rhythm of audience applause that turned again and again into beat clapping.
And what of the acts? I find circus clowns invariably unfunny, often downright misanthropic and prone to wallowing in self-pity. Big surprise here: Tweedy the Scottish clown was amusing and faux-clumsily deft in many skills; and not least, generous in backing up other acts with his zany zeal and also kind with children brought on stage. He danced like a man possessed, and gave a dynamic backbone to the show.
There were several animal acts – Shetland ponies trained by Nell Gifford herself, dachshunds from St Petersburg, a prancing dapple grey horse and an underwhelming 'singing' turkey, and although clearly popular with the younger children, I thought they acted as eye-candy filler for the human acts rather than offering anything particularly novel or ambitious.
The human acts were mostly variations on acrobats – I slightly regretted the absence of, say, a fire eater or a bloke pulling a double-decker bus by his teeth or pinioned on a bed of nails – but they were varied within their discipline and followed a satisfying trajectory of suspense. So we had brothers from Sicily and then the Diaz Sisters (Angela and Eppelina) from Portugal. To Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue', big sis lay prone on the floor, balancing a vertical ladder by her legs while little sis performed handstands from rung 20 as the lights turned from Prussian blue to violet to turquoise to royal blue to emerald to acid yellow to shocking pink and then back to turquoise. The Gershwin switched to An American in Paris as little sis contorted arms and legs into unlikely configurations before descending, boa-constrictor-like, to terra firma.
A juggler in a loud, Robert Redford-type suit from The Sting threw clubs, balls, straw hats and magnetic blocks, more acrobats thudded onto one end of a see-saw, propelling a comrade like a cork from a bottle of Moet et Chandon high onto a mattress or a chair. The Diaz Brothers – a prolific family, this – somersaulted and pirouetted, both bathed with sweat by act-end; reminding us of the toil that goes into these apparently effortless acts. The one brother landed so often with his sibling's foot between his legs that I winced, calculating the likelihood of his imminently going forth and multiplying at approximately zero.
Best of all was The Luscious Lissandra, a variation on the high-wire trapeze. As the band played 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', Lissandra swarmed up a thick, silken cord to the roof and there hung and entwined herself in the material, leaping and twirling as we oohed and aahed. Then, a pendulum in pink, swinging in the smoothest parabola before plunging to earth as we gasped and screamed.