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.

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