Monday, 29 June 2015

Chapter 83: Shadowing Dennis Severs

A menagerie of friends by visage artist Sarah Godard*

Breakfast at Lucy's
Picture the scene. Or maybe best not. Maybe just shut your eyes and skip this first paragraph. There I am, 2pm on Saturday afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table in next to nothing but a slip of silk, tapping away at my laptop, furiously trying to bring together my previous post on Giffords Circus' "Moon Songs". It's been a long time coming and I have a small window before going off to the wedding of dearest friends. We've just had a lazy lunch, and Mr LucyLovesCircus (as he's now known) has just taken the kids to a party, while I am ignoring the clearing up and cracking on, lost in a lunar reverie. The doorbell goes. Shortly followed by a key turning in the door. Crap, it must the be the Estate Agent. I had completely forgotten we had a house viewing today. I have to make a split second decision on what bothers me more - the state of the kitchen or my state of undress. I hear kids voices too and leg it up the stairs just as the door is opening.  Grabbing last night's party frock and slinging it over in seconds, I hover like a ghost. A rather noisy ghost. Instead of rattling chains, clattering with five dirty mugs  looped on my fingers. I manage to sneak back to the kitchen and my laptop, looking with horror at the place. I now see the bags of chips spilling out, a chicken carcass on the side, a riot of dirty plates, a calamity of ketchup, and a pair of gold hot pants flung over the back of a chair for good measure. It's like a Dennis Severs installation brought into the 21st Century. Who is Dennis Severs? Let me explain.

Last Autumn I was taking a Spanish friend, who had been staying with us in South London, to his lodgings in Bishopsgate, as a guest of the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival at Richmix in Dalston. Nel was staying at the Tune Hotel on Folgate Street, to be precise, and once we had settled him in there I registered a rather odd building opposite. Dark and mysterious, it had a lantern flickering in front of the black door, with red painted numbers and rather eerie silhouettes in the window. So I snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook with the question: "Anyone know what's going on here?". Sure enough, my original Circus Space partner in crime Anne, a City of London tour guide (among other things) flagged it as Dennis Severs' house and promised to take me there. We finally got there last Thursday. 

Dennis Severs was an American eccentric who came over to London in the 50s. In love with English heritage, the world of Dickens and so forth, he bought the house, lovingly furnished it over the years with all sorts of antiques he had collected, and lived in it as though from another century. He invented a family of 18th century silk weavers, The Jervis Family, Huguenot refugees, to inhabit the space and transformed the house into their history.  It is not just a recreation of rooms, it is a living museum, with the idea being that each room you walk into has literally just been vacated. You get a sense of the family, as though they are just outside the corner of your eye. Shadows that you can't quite fix on, but you get the impression. Candles are burning, soup is on the fire, half eaten dinner - the life is tangible. The tour is done in silence, no touching of any of the items, and you are invited to drink in the smells, the visual cues and the sounds of street life, clock chimes and the scattering of footsteps. 

Anne, of course, in her inimitable style, had booked us on the champagne tour - a glass awaiting at the end, when speech would be permitted. I don't know which I was looking forward to more, quite frankly. We were joined by another friend, Ange. Our last excursion as a threesome together had been last year for The Alchemic Order's Dorian Gray**, a house that had been transformed to recreate a Wilde evening, and the parallels were striking.  We knocked at the door. It opened and we were greeted by Joel, one of the guides with the most deliciously rich voice of Burtonesque proportions. He took one look at us and invited us to be silent "for as long as you can … [a resigned look] well, at least do try for the first bit". Actually, we did pretty well. A couple of stage whispers here and there, especially when trying to remember a beautiful little motif on one of the samplers 'A woman who has intellect, without the softening of the heart, is … stupid." As no cameras are permitted and we didn't have a pen and paper to hand, we divvied the line into three parts. I failed miserably at remembering my bit (one gin-in-a-tin en route is all it takes) and in the redistribution of parts ended up with simply "stupid" instead. Thanks guys. 

Each room was like a "still-life drama" with guiding notes left by Dennis Severs, directing attention, inviting thoughts. I don't want to say too much, you really do have to experience it blind. The tableau (presque) vivant incarnating a Hogarth picture of carnal overindulgence obviously struck a chord, the integration of a bit of Spitalfields history was fascinating, the kitchen's low ceiling surprising, and the attic, a mock-up of the conditions and house rules that a lodging family like Bob Cratchett's would really have had to suffer, was heart-breaking. If you go in winter, I'm told, you really feel the full force of the harsh conditions, the chill, the draughts, every creak and crack. And it's also worth going in December months as the rest of the house lends itself to festive cheer. 

Afterwards, chatting over our glass of bubbly with a couple of the guides, fountains of information, we learned that a book is coming out about the house in the Autumn by the author of Hugo. I wondered if the legendary immersive theatre company Punchdrunk*** had expressed an interest in the place, as I can imagine them staging their own immersive tour. Of course they have been round several times and been in talks, though I imagine the logistics would be tricky given the dynamics and the legions of crowds trampling through that a PD production would attract. Dennis Severs himself used to give a tour in the old days, and while I'm sure they have their own candidates, I've mentally cast Dorian's Lord Henry Wooten in the role. He'd be the perfect wit! 

Experiences of the house happen at specific times. But be warned. It's an enchanting place. Both guides I spoke to had started out as a visitor and then never left. And they do all the dusting themselves with tender care. 

For more information check out the site at
There is a Dennis Severs' House  page on Facebook and follow on Twitter @18FolgateStreet.

In Autumn there is book by Brian Selznick called "The Marvels" (illustrator and author of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" turned into the film Scorsese hit "Hugo")   featuring the house. Here he is talking about it: 

*Sarah Godard is one of a handful of visage portrait artist, a skill inherited from 18th Century France, and captured our friends at our Moulin Rouge house-party for Mr LucyLovesCircus' 40th a couple of weeks ago.  Check out her website:

**The Alchemic Order will be back with Dorian Gray in Greenwich in the Autumn. Follow on FB page and on Twitter @AlchemicOrder. Please check out Anne's post on a stellar evening: click here: "Passion for All…Dorian Gray and Immersive Theatre"

***Punchdrunk are currently running a ground-breaking show aimed at children aged 6-12 years old, set in The Maritime Museum in Greenwich called "Against Captain's Orders" - click here for more details - see

Finally, please note: round the corner from Folgate Street, British Land are set demolish nearly three quarters of buildings on their site within the Elder St Conservation Area. There is a campaign called "Save Norton Folgate" - find out more about it here: and by following the Spitafield Trusts on twitter @SpitalfieldsT.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Chapter 82: Giffords Circus presents Moon Songs

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.” 
(Shakespeare: Midsummer Night's Dream)

I have started writing this on Midsummer's Eve, and romance is in the air. Just back from my sister's wedding in Hampshire where she and my new brother-in-law tied the knot, third time lucky for both of them. I am high on the joy, love and laughter that shone throughout the day, meeting the groom's family, discovering many crossover connections, building bridges, embracing family. I am also still under the spell of Giffords Circus "Moon Songs" which we went to see on Monday with the children, and am trying to conjure up words to do justice to some enchanted evening. Giffords Circus is legendary, the byword for glamour and circus chic. I've heard so many tales, about the terrific Nell Gifford and her extended circus family, from friends, shocked that I've never been before. My favourite is the one about the nanny who went to look after the Gifford children and ended up as one of the acts. Urban myth?! For the uninitiated, Giffords Circus is a vintage 1930s style Big Top circus that tours round the Cotswolds, taking its family name, in old-school fashion, from Nell and Toti Gifford. Nell is the one who ran away with the circus, and Toti is her husband, producing dreams together. The circus is so popular that by the time I heard about it arriving at Chiswick House weekend tickets were all sold out, and we opted for the after-school option. The children were delighted. Circus on a school night!

The weekend had been full on, among other things, celebrating our wedding anniversary while hosting a party for twenty excitable 7 year olds and an animal menagerie. Actually, twelve years on, I thought my husband and I as a double act were doing pretty well, until the moment when we were upstaged by a royal python. Snaking through traffic at rush hour the following day, to get to the circus in Chiswick via the Hammersmith flyover, was even more hair-raising. So when we finally arrived at Chiswick House car park, barely minutes before the performance began, I was feeling pretty wrecked. Still, as soon as we crossed into the Secret Space, of the walled garden that was housing the circus, we were hit by a mouthwatering waft of candy that dissolved the stress of the journey. It felt like everything had come up smelling of popcorn after all. The performance really started outside the tent. The stage was set by the smart burgundy and cream of the surrounding caravan trailers, the razzle-dazzle  in the form of the charming bellboy ushers and leggy usherettes in their velvets and tasselled  epaulettes. And we spotted Tweedy the Clown wandering around, thanks to his signature tuft of red hair, dragging along an iron attached via an ankle bracelet. That made me laugh - I'm not the only one chained to the housework! 

The magic continued to work round the back where we chanced upon the stables and the children caught a glimpse of the horses being groomed for the show. And who could resist the enchantment of a tumble of candyfloss when there is a fair organ playing in the background? We scoffed the last wisp at the entrance to the tent just as my husband arrived, and as we crossed the threshold the sticky sweet scent of circus changed to savoury notes of sawdust and starlight. There is a free-seating system and the place was packed, but the ushers managed to squeeze us into the last few remaining seats just by the band. Dressed in satins, topped with conical hats they reminded me of musical harlequins and it felt like we had hit the jackpot. Tweedy the Clown, meanwhile, in his own inimitable vaudeville style already had the crowd in stitches attempting to assemble and sit down on a deckchair.  Looking across at my Swiss husband, on his first visit to a Big Top in the UK, I could see a switch flick off work-mode in an instant, and the kids faces were a study in delight. 

The show is called "Moon Songs", and we had fun spotting the lunar references in each piece of music. "Fly Me To The Moon" struck up during the interval, our first wedding dance, which was a happy piece of serendipity for this anniversary outing. The title also encapsulates the romance and the lunacy of anyone wishing to run away to the circus, like the stellar jugglers, the brothers Bibi and Bichu. We meet them first as children in their African bed, conjuring up a Big Top on a village green that begs the question: did they dream up Giffords, or did Giffords dream up them?! From there spins the world of a fairground by the light of the silvery moon, with the master of ceremonies, the great Orodoff, swapping the ringmaster's red tailcoat and top hat for the trappings of a mesmerising Victorian illusionist, assisted by David, boyishly clad in a sailor-suit. Tweedy provides continuity between acts, forecasting them as Magda, the mechanical clairvoyant in her booth - transporting me back to childhood trips to the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in Covent Garden (click here) - and as the face of the Man in the Moon, pictured. The latter, a nod to the aesthetics of George Méliès'  silent classic "A Trip to the Moon" (click here for link to film), also reminded me of Robin William's cameo as a planet in Terry Gilliam's surreal "Time Bandits" (again, click here for link to the film). 

David's demonic skill on the diabolo reignited the spark our son had been carrying for the discipline last summer, while Tweedy being fired from the cannon… well, it was a real blast. Bibi and Bichu's star turn with the LED light-changing clubs took us back to our first encounter with Gandini Juggling in a tent at Camp Bestival last year (see Chapter 29 - click here). I especially loved the gravitational pull of the sequence where Bibi and Bichu, suspended by invisible harnesses in the dark, juggle clubs whose trajectory is interspersed with ultra-violet puppet pins on wires, weaving their way in and out in slow motion.  

Our 7 year old daughter was captivated by the four Abyssinian acrobat girls, who sprang from behind the shadows cast on a screen that at one point suggested a multi-limbed Hindu deity. The whole 12-strong Ethiopian troupe was certainly divine, and their banquine and flipping finale at the end was breath-taking. We were also spellbound by the gracefully supine Kata Kliss, seamlessly threading her way through the hula-hoops, pirouetting on her hands, and then, caught like a mermaid in a net, transformed into an aerial siren in a later act.  Our youngest fell head over heels for the pair of Moon Dogs bolting round the ring, and their immaculately choreographed mischief. I found watching the horses rather poignant. So sleek, well-groomed and loved. It reminded of my Polish brother-in-law's story of his grandfather in the cavalry who taught his white stallion to bow to the pretty young school-teacher he was courting. And, reader, she married him.  As for the bear-back riding act, the kids wanted to believe it was a real bear, and in that circus space they were free to do so.  At the end, the children are invited to join the performers in the ring as they dance and gradually the whole audience filters in. As the performers made their exit our 7 year old looked longingly after them and whispered "I wish I could go with them behind that curtain".  Our youngest grabbed my hand and danced with me for dear life.  Lost in the moment. We all were.  

As we left the tent some of the performers were outside saying goodbye. Our joke-telling, Yoda-impersonating 
clown of a son was over the moon to be high-fived by Tweedy, while our 7 year old was thrilled when she shyly caught the eye of the Ethiopian girls in the distance and they gave her huge smiles and a wave back. Our little one meanwhile legged it back to the stables in search of animals friends to whom to whisper.  At the end of the day, there was a tangible feel of circus family celebrating family life that was incredibly welcoming and made the heart soar. And that there is the magic of circus. Thank you.

"My soul is in the sky"
(Shakespeare: Midsummer Night's Dream)


Giffords Circus is on tour all summer. See (click here) for listings of venues and dates.

If, like my daughter, the experience inspires you to go behind the scenes, Nell Gifford has written about the early days as Nell Stroud in "Josser: The Life of a Circus Girl" and more recently the most beautiful accompaniment to the circus  "Giffords: The First Ten Years", complete with translucent dust-jacket with gold-embossed lettering. 

And an old favourite in our house from the 1930s - so Giffords! - is Noel Streatfeild's "Circus Shoes" (originally "The Circus is Coming") about a pair of orphaned siblings who run away to their uncle in the circus and discover all the hard graft and love involved. Streatfeild herself tented with a circus for a couple of seasons. 

All the photos from the evening are in Giffords album on my "Lucy Loves Circus"  Facebook Page.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Chapter 81: Pole in the Park

Pole is a slippery subject at the best of times. I remember the day I was chatting about my new interest over coffee with a friend. By the time I went to pick my son up from school an hour or so later, another friend asked me "So Luce, you and pole, how long has it been?" About six weeks, I started enthusiastically, and began to talk about this fantastic workshop we had just been on with Cirque de Soleil's Felix Cane. No, no, she cut in, I mean since you were overheard talking about it in the café and it's gone viral at the school gates. Welcome to Suburbia. We've still got the red lights in the hallway after the Moulin Rouge house party for my husband last week, all that's missing now is the pampas grass out front...

Anna demonstrating The Lounging Lady
Learning The Lounging Lady
Because here's the thing. Pole has a Reputation. After all, it has its origins in strip clubs and cattle markets, with nightbirds flaunting their feathers for the lads - the same way, legend has it, that the tango that now graces the Establishment grew out of the bordellos of Buenos Aires. Although, if you strip back history still further, you will find pole gymnastics at the heart of the ancient Indian practice of "mallakhamba" - malla meaning wrestler, and khamba meaning pole. I definitely see polefit as a way of fighting fit, wrestling back my body, building up stamina to keep up with my kids and as a superb well-woman exercise, both physically and mentally. It has transformed my core strength in next to no time, increased my flexibility exponentially and my confidence has soared as a result - and it's fun. As you start practicing pole, the urban landscape changes very quickly into a parkour playground: support rails on tubes; signs at bus stops; fitness poles in the park and water markers on the beach are all fair game for all manner of inversions, swings and handstands. It may be tough at times, but you are never bored and always stretched. 

Apparently there was a time when Sam King couldn't do splits...

Advanced student Lucy Reed, leading the way
Pole isn't that widespread in the U.K., not in my neck of the woods anyway, and not in comparison with the U.S. and Australia, you get the impression. But the movement is catching on. This weekend my polefit teacher Anna pitched up on Clapham Common, round the corner from the Windmill Pub, with three poles and an aerial hoop. Anna is a former ballerina and she was joined by Sam King, who doesn't have a dance background, not that you'd know it as he is a legend on the championship circuits. Both of them, together with polefit instructor Silvia and the more advanced students, displayed a grace and dexterity that astonished, delighted and drew in the crowds. It encouraged passers by to have a go in a relaxed environment.  I took the family along and we had a great time catching up with familiar faces, and some new ones, from polefit classes. We also enjoyed seeing local friends who stopped by en famille. All the children instinctively gravitated towards the climbs and hocks, swinging like naturals, it was a joy to behold. Friends who came along later from Flying Fantastic and Circus Space (check out Isabella Mars Aerial & Trapeze boots FB page) reported a fantastic atmosphere, an opportunity to meet interesting people and to try a new discipline. It's all about education and attitude, and building bridges between communities. Another event is being planned for July. This is just the beginning... 

Pole duo Anna and Sam

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Chapter 80: Take That and Circus

I was in the Wimbledon Sewing Shop yesterday, actually in Tooting, buying up my body weight in ostrich feathers and black satin, when Take That came on the radio. Could it be magic? Well, it felt like that for me as I was off to see them that night with some girlfriends, as that's what any loyal wife does on the eve of her husband's 40th birthday. 

Off on a Mini Adventure
Take That is a group that I've grown up with, and resonates on so many different levels, as for most people, but for me with mixed emotions. They came out when I was a teenager at a school where I did not fit in. So while the rest of the sixth form bopped away to live Take That concerts on TV in the common room, I retreated to my bedroom with Aladdin Sane and took comfort in a couple of kooks. And I am still cringing at the thought of launching forth to local Dad Mark Owen, having been introduced by a mutual friend as "Lucy who is learning trapeze", about Circus Space, aerial tricks and the whole circus zeitgeist. I only twigged much later that he and his mates had filled Wembley Stadium with Circus years before it had flipped onto my radar, and that just maybe he knew a thing or two more than me. So then I bought the Circus CD in penance for my evangelism and have myself been converted. The songs are fun and upbeat, or boy ballads, and straight from the heart. Although my enjoyment of the album was tempered with a touch of regret that I never saw them in concert, on days when life drags, that music is just what the doctor ordered.

So last week, mucking out the Aegean stables of housework with three kids on half-term to entertain, an email from a friend inviting me to the opening night at the O2 was just the ticket. The evening  itself was warm and balmy, and as we sat outside - albeit in a bar inside the O2 village - having a drink and catching up with half of Wandsworth. Easily pleased, I'd have been happy enough with that for the evening to be honest. But as we entered the arena, it was blindingly obvious that it was the right call to drag ourselves away from the bar. Soaking in the atmosphere, surprisingly intimate, excitement grew exponentially as  the empty seats next to us were occupied by really old friends of mine. In a crowd of 15,000, what are the odds, right?

Joe Dieffenbacher

The set had the feel of Fritz Lang crossed with Gene Kelly, think Cirkopolis meets La Soirée (see Chapter 67 and Chapter 51), but still I buttoned down my expectations of any circus. So you can imagine my delight when first up on stage was a clown. Not the red-nosed, flat-footed Big Top variety, but Cirque-style, the  consummate physical comedian, part-acrobat, Joe Dieffenbacher ( - see video at the end). A wheel that I thought for a split second could be a unicycle, then became half a penny farthing under the tinkering ministrations of the  clown-cum-inventor-mechanic. There was a giant hamster's wheel (of life) in which he begins to run, then spins, going nowhere. Hustling and bustling flash-harrys appeared with suitcases of goods to sell on the never-never, passers-by in raincoats and trilbies with places to be weaved in and out, tableus vivants of city-living in an alternative world.

The set then exploded in riot of colour, later with technicolour powders recalling a Diwali festival - there was a rainbow myriad of umbrellas, and then amidst a blaze of pyrotechnics in colour-blocks of suits emerged the trio of Gary Barlow, Mark Owen and Howard Donald: "and we're what's left of Take That". And they could afford to take the mickey, because they were stellar in their own right. As this was my first concert, I can't comment on the change in dynamics, but my gut feeling is that Robbie Williams is one of nature's soloists, and while Jason Orange would have worked well as one of the boys, a threesome is always an interesting balancing act. Bromance was the order of the day (though not a Cyr wheel in sight!*), and later there was a stunning, rather heated, dance duet performed by Mark and Howard to one of Gary's ballads that upped the ante.

Circus topped the bill in the order of music, kicking off with "Hold Up The Light**" from the album, so by the time "Up All Night" came on, I was in seventh heaven. There was a magical set in an underwater paradise, the floating jellyfish being my personal favourites, and the beauty of the shadow puppet art on a nautical theme for Circus number "The Garden" completely took my breath away. In terms of classic hits these tracks were up there with  "Relight My Fire", with a flamingly beautiful circus act with Circus Space's Katherine Arnold on cloud swing (video at the end) I also really enjoyed the numbers from the latest album III, which are truly contemporary and progressive, not a whiff of nostalgia.  "These Days" is a cracking number, while "Let in the Sun" (see video) is now seared in my memory together with another sizzling aerial performance from Katherine Arnold, spinning in a sphere at first while other performers attached patches of lights, like countries being fitted onto a globe, until it looked like she was spinning in a ball of fire, and afterwards spun from the base, hanging from straps.

Flight underpinned the concert and a beautiful flock of puppet birds (pictured) prefigured the grand finale where the trio take off, skimming over our dear tumbling clown, with Gary and Mark like the Wright Brothers on the now airborne penny farthing, with Howard in the side-car attached. Boys with their toys having a field day.  It was great to see, because the thing is when you see other people living the dream it gives wings to your own. At the end of the day the evening with Take That was a chance to sing at the top of our voices, dance with wild abandon, wind back the clock, reset it even, and act our (teen) age again. As one of the girls so rightly observed, the thing is Lucy, they are still boys, which technically speaking makes us still girls. And that's why we love them.

You can dance if you like
You can sing every song 
No, you don't have to steal the show
It was your show all along.
(from Hold Up The Light**)

Hold Up The Light from Circus tour (2009)

*STOP PRESS: You may have missed Take That, but if you fancy a spot of bromance you still have time to catch circus boys Bromance, winners of the 2014 Total Theatre Award for Circus and at the Udderbelly Festival, Southbank, 24th June-19th July.  Click here for more info: