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Giffords Circus: My Beautiful Circus

A thrilling, candle-lit, international gymnastic show with dancing horses, a live band and of course the king of mis-rule Tweedy the clown.
Credit: Giffords Circus
Blenheim Palace, Thu 7 - Mon 11 June 2018; University Parks, Thu 14 - Mon 25 June 2018.

Firm Oxford favourites Giffords Circus are returning once more to the University Parks, with a nostalgic show about the lure and magic of circus life. See acrobatics by candlelight, horse riding feats, live music, human pyramids and much more, plus the infamous Tweedy the clown up to his usual foolery. This slick troupe offer bucket loads of amazement and amusement for all the family.

As well as the circus fun, Giffords have a travelling restaurant called Circus Sauce which serves locally sourced, seasonal food on communal oak tables. Three course meals are £30 per person and booking is essential as places are limited.

Get a taste of what to expect by having a read of our reviews of previous years' shows below. If you can't make it this time, see where else the circus is visiting here.

June 15, 2018
Plunging to earth as we gasped and screamed

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.

June 16, 2017
Giffords Circus Delivers Storming 17th Show

Giffords is a proper old-school circus. Featuring a live band, tricks with ponies, clowns and acrobats, this is a truly spectacular event for the whole family.

Giffords is a very different proposition to the circuses I grew up with. The whole show looks incredibly luxurious, with beautiful costumes and lovingly restored classic vans and caravans all around. It doesn't have a trace of the fairground tackiness of the circuses I've seen before - this is a much classier affair.

The circus boasts some remarkable acts. I don't want to spoil the show, but there were tricks with the acrobats that made me properly gasp - really impressive, I-really-didn't-think-that-was-physically-possible stuff. There were also tricks with ponies, and a troupe of clowns, who come in with little acts to break up the main show and let everyone catch their breath. This made for a really well-paced, slick show. I also liked the live music very much - there is an orchestra playing onstage throughout the show, which is a really lovely touch.

I always have a worried eye on circuses who use animals, but there is no cause for concern here. There are no exotic animals, but a gang of happy looking ponies and some well-trained chickens.

I didn't find this a perfect show - I felt the singer was unnecessary and served as a bit of a distraction, one of the clowns was deeply irritating (though in fairness the kids absolutely loved him) and the themes were sometimes unclear and a bit messy. However, this was all outweighed by the genuine love and attention to detail that went into the show - it was impossible not to get swept up with the magic of the circus in the end.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Gifford's Circus as a jaw-dropping but high-end family night out. I would happily take either a five year old or my parents - it's a lovely show, steeped in nostalgia but never overcome with it.

June 20, 2016
Giffords Circus produce another rooting-tooting show

Giffords Circus is a cavalcade of fun. It sweeps up everything in its path with its infectious enthusiasm, its showmanship and its breathtaking acrobatics. Always themed - this year it's Western: The Painted Wagon, the success of the evening is as much in director Cal McCrystal's attention to detail, pace and atmosphere as the immense watchability of the performers.

And that's just it. Everything about Giffords Circus is about participation. The colourful caravans that house the troupe circle the Big Tent like a pioneer wagon train. The usherettes are long-legged lovelies with tasselled crimson hats, who not only see you to your seat, but stand in the aisles, clapping, dancing and smiling as the crowd begins to fizz with excitement.

The band strikes up - direct from the Grand Ole Opry, and exuberant Nancy Trotter welcomes you to Sarsaparilla Sal's Dodge City Saloon. The spirits served there in the next two hours simultaneously intoxicate and raise the roof.

Cal McCrystal's fast and furious direction ensured that the evening gathered pace, carrying all ages with it. There were quirky moments: a solo hen who circled the sawdust ring, pecking at grain rewards as she went; two dogs who stole a sausage on a stick, and a surreal act by Nancy Trotter whose skill with five hoops transformed her into a menagerie of animals.

There were thrills in the superb athleticism of the Konjowoch Troupe from Ethiopia who hung horizontally from vertical poles at the apex of the Big Top, and dazzled with their collective bravery and co-ordination.

Gleaming horses trained by Yasmine Smart, and ridden by Hennessey Gold Cup jockey Dan Fortt, pranced and pirouetted. Fortt's magnificent grey leapt through a ring of fire; co-producer Nell Gifford's awesome black mount carried her elegantly round the ring as she played the bandana-wearing outlaw El Gifford who threw showers of gold coins into the crowd. In hot pursuit was stern law enforcement in the lithe form of a handsome Sheriff, who the crowd loved to boo, and he to goad.

Tweedy the Clown's antics were as inventive and accomplished as ever, Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam juggled with bottles of bourbon, while Lilian Konyot's skill with a lasso and a silver revolver embellished the Western theme. Two killjoy Puritan protesters who fervently wished that the crowd would not enjoy the show were won over and transformed into gorgeous trapeze artists.

One of the most beautiful moments was the superb duet between Stephanie Chisholm and Erin Cervantes. Rarely can two bodies have been so astonishingly expressive. They were a quiet revelation.

The Puritans vanquished, the show almost over, it was the moment for the crowd to rise to their feet, clap their hands, and at the entire cast's invitation, enter the ring to dance ecstatically to the band. Producer Nell Gifford looked delighted; the cast found even more energy – and the audience was in raptures. What an evening!

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