Chiswick House and Gardens
Reviewed – 24th June 2021
“a carnival of fun, silliness and breath-taking skill and enchantment”
“Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild. With a faery, hand in hand…” The line, from W. B. Yeats’ ‘The Stolen Child’ echoes around the big top, beckoning us into the magical world of Giffords Circus. A Celtic world of faeries and goblins; pixies, elves and leprechauns. Of dragons and unicorns, illusion and dreams. Bohemian and surreal. “… for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”, continues Yeats’ verse, but the line is unspoken here. There is no need of the reminder: the lure is the cure for the cavalcade of ills that have befallen in the past fifteen months.
It’s Giffords twenty-first birthday this year, and they are certainly celebrating in style with ‘The Hooley’. Founded by Nell Gifford, with her ex-husband Toti, the family circus has changed direction every year, adopting various themes, embracing many cultures, and entertaining over a million people on the way. Nell sadly passed away in 2019, but her vision of a village green, vintage circus lives on. As the sun dips behind the trees, the crowds gravitate towards the main tent, towards an evening of mysticism and fantasy; and a chance not just to watch or imagine, but a chance to be at the centre of it all.
The evening is packed full of highlights, a carnival of fun, silliness and breath-taking skill and enchantment. The irresistible Tweedy the Clown, a Giffords stalwart leads the evening – or rather makes a chaotic stab at it – with his mix of pranks and prowess. Nancy Trotter Landry conjures butterfly wings from her hoops, making it look so effortless, before breaking into song with her ethereal voice. Similarly, aerialist Lil Rice (Nell Gifford’s niece, and successor producer) soars with her voice as she takes flight and floats above us. The fairy dust is sprinkled thick and fast as the acts tumble, fly and leap into the ring: the New Revolution Troupe from Cuba, smiling insanely through their equally insane acrobatics, Jonny Grundy and Manuel Artino, dissolving into their aerial hoop as one; equestriennes Rebecca Musselwhite and Lotte Seal, and the unearthly Andrejs Fjodorous, conducting his flock of doves in an awe-inspiring choreographed routine.
The list goes on, and the spell remains unbroken – even through the moments of pure comedy. And talking dogs, horses, and a cake-loving dragon. And you thought unicorns were mythical? Think again!
The Giffords Circus Band, led by James Keay, underscore throughout and follow the action with precision timing; their melodic presence following us out into the twilight as the show comes to a close. We don’t want to leave, but we know we must. We have lived our childhood dreams of running away with the circus, if only for a couple of hours. ‘We have held the jewel of our childhood up to our eyes’, to paraphrase the late Nell Gifford.
Giffords Circus is that perfect haven, with its mix of spectacle and intimacy. And as we head back to reality, we are buoyed by the certainty that, like the moon and the stars, the circus will return to us, and we can escape once more. On our way home, we flick through the programme and come across a letter; a dedication from Lil Rice ‘for Nelly’.
“… As we rake up the sawdust and dance our final dance, we dance it for you dear Nell. We will dance on for you…”
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Andrew Rees
Chiswick House and Gardens until 11th July then tour continues around the UK until September. Visit www.giffordscircus.com for details
Previously reviewed by Joe this year: