OOnce a year, every year, my mom asks if it’s too late for her to pack up her career and join the circus. I blame Gifford’s Circus. In 2000 the touring company began in the village greens of Gloucestershire. Ticket holders would head to their local common areas and immerse themselves in a world of kitsch comedy and glitzy glamour. Since then the circus has become a staple on grasslands across Britain but has remained a Cotswold institution. I went to my first Gifford’s in 2002, a show I remembered too young. But those circus trips in the mid-noughties punctuated my childhood and called me back year after year.
Unless you’re a regular Gifford visitor, the word ‘circus’ can conjure up images of moustache-twirling ringleaders, huge audiences and questionable animal practices. Gifford’s has banned all of that. It’s more of a musical – and a particularly intimate one. Each year has a new story, theme, and loose plot that interweaves and connects the acts throughout. There’s a live band, sometimes playing covers, sometimes performing entire original soundtracks; The show ends with a huge musical number involving all the acts. They all try, although the show’s choreographer, Kate Smyth, tells me that this is the least favorite part for many of the cast. Even tightrope walkers get nervous sometimes.
Gifford’s has always had a theatrical bent, but that was solidified with the arrival of director Cal McCrystal in 2012. McCrystal is a comedy director best known for his work on The Mighty Boosh and the National Theater One man, two Guvnors. He had never heard of Gifford’s but quickly fell in love with it. “I thought I’d do three years, then they’d probably get tired of me,” he jokes. “But the shows just get better and better every year in a fun way.”
I’m meeting McCrystal at Gifford’s base in my hometown of Stroud in the final days of rehearsals for Carpa!, this year’s Mexican show. Sequins are sewn onto leotards one by one. Large set pieces are sawn from wood. In a large exercise ring, a horse gallops in circles (horses are the only animals used in this show). While everyone is rushing around him, McCrystal appears surprisingly calm, decked out in company merch from head to toe. He was brought into the business by the late Nell Gifford, who founded Gifford’s with her then-husband Toti. The dream of going off to the circus? She had actually done it – before studying English at Oxford, of course.
The circus they conceived harked back to the art form’s more traditional, less conspicuous roots. Its home has been in small communities around Gloucestershire and the surrounding counties, but in the decades since it has grown exponentially. This year’s tour lasts five and a half months and takes the troupe through Wiltshire, Oxford and London. You’re likely to spot the odd celebrity at the shows in Chiswick, of which Helena Bonham Carter and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are known. But the circus has stayed true to its roots and still returns to the rural villages where it used to play.
Gifford’s is undeniably a bourgeois affair – but daring nonetheless. From the outside you can see a small tent with a vintage look. But inside, a rich magic is summoned. Troops of acrobats fling themselves into the air (mostly straight at each other), knives dart past ears, and people dance on their hands, often on the back of a moving horse. Tweedy the Clown (a local legend) keeps the show going by stomping around the stage with a pet iron on a string called a keef.
This year, Tweedy has a new clown companion in Mexican comedian Adriana Duch. In fact, there is a Mexican theme throughout the show. It’s the company’s first full-capacity show since the pandemic. Last year it performed to a reduced audience, while in 2020 the restrictions-compliant show required guests to socially distance The party in the in-house restaurant. Those experiences brought the cast together, McCrystal says — but god, it’s good to be back and able to do things right.
From the costumes, sets and rehearsal glimpses I’m shown, Carpa! is Gifford’s in its Gifford’s-iest. Tweedy, says McCrystal, “has been dying for ages for a really wrong, strictly domineering boss because it makes him look dumber” – Duch nails it. Tweedy, clad in blue dungarees, a snapback and a Joker-branded bag, chuckles at this. “I can get more sympathy,” he replies with a twinkle in his eye.
New acts join and leave Gifford’s every year (although there always seems to be a different Cuban acrobatics troupe), but everyone becomes part of the family. The area behind the tent is a maze of trailers and trailers where the local artists live. This closeness creates bonds. I watch as McCrystal hands Adriana a copy of jane eyre in Spanish; she seems really touched.
This year, in keeping with the theme of the show, almost everyone is from Spanish-speaking countries. Backstage it’s the unofficial language – even if McCrystal only speaks un poquito. The performers work together and help each other out in their performances, while everyone pitches in when it comes time to move to a new venue. But it’s also fun – when the Gifford crew joins in, things really get going. “Acrobats are really serious partygoers,” says McCrystal. “Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, the party from the night before is still going on.”
McCrystal and Nell used to brainstorm ideas for next year’s show together, but when she died of breast cancer in 2019, it became his job. It was actually her niece Lil Rice, an amazing Cyr Wheel performer who had previously appeared on the show, that suggested Mexico. McCrystal was sold immediately. It was there that he first met Duch in 2001 and he wanted to capture “the excitement and the chaos and the joy and the fun of Mexico” on stage. Duch’s own background was in makeup rather than clowning. Still, she took it easy. “With the mask you play a character, [but] in comedy it’s more like being yourself,” she says.
This year’s show, McCrystal says, is “an English version of Mexican culture.” The company strives to be inclusive of the cultures it represents, and obviously they never would Carpa! without Mexican performers. But the performers are from all over the world – last year’s show was about Ireland, and McCrystal points out that even the two Irish dancers were from Little Rock, Arkansas and Belarus respectively. They had been trying to get Irish dancers who were actually Irish, and instead McCrystal nicknamed the Belarusian dancer’s homeland “Bally Loose”.
No one goes to a circus expecting naturalism or historical reenactment, but I wonder how the creative team can balance high-camp comedy and theatrics with authentic representations of these cultures. “I always have to think about cultural appropriation,” says McCrystal. “It’s a difficult time, especially doing comedy, because something that was perfectly acceptable 10 years ago is now unacceptable to people.”
McCrystal describes it as a “renewed sensitivity,” though he wants to clarify that “it’s probably not a bad thing that we all need to think a little more carefully about the things we do.” Gifford’s, however, he says, has always operated in its own space. After all, there is nothing comparable on the market. “Gifford’s is actually a real bubble and there are probably things more traditional English comedy [that] we can do here what you may no longer see in the West End or on TV. But I think the shows we do here are always friendly.” He laughs. “Even if there is something naughty, it is always generous and warm.”
‘Carpa!’ runs at Chiswick House and Gardens until June 27th and across the UK until September 19th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/giffords-circus-carpa-chiswick-2022-b2101693.html Inside Gifford’s Circus: the Cotswold institution bringing magic to central England