One of my favourite family traditions is our annual outing to Giffords Circus during its summer tour of various village greens and levelled fields of the Cotswolds. Under my mother’s summoning, squabbling sisters, outspoken aunts and taciturn uncles all meet in the village of Little Barrington to share an evening of rowdy and raucous tent entertainment.
Forget all your circus phobias; there are no smeary faced clowns or emancipated animal acts in this show. With its old-fashioned circus wagons and outlandish burlesque costumes – all frills and petticoats – Giffords is an inimitable feast of sumptuous theatrics that embodies English eccentricity at its most audacious. Among its motley cast members – a quavering soprano, a toffee-nosed grand piano player, a clumsy gypsy magician and a giant dancing bear – the real show stealer is the mischievous Tweedy the Clown. Appearing at curtain-up in a skimpy leopard-print tunic trailing a kettle on a string, Tweedy keeps the audience amused with his slapstick turns, bawdy slurs and pantomime echoes that weave in and out of each act until the end of the show. It’s not all music and drama; highly polished circus acts include fire throwing jugglers, swinging acrobats, a hand-walking gymnast and a set of acrobatic strongmen.
Giffords’ ringmistress is the formidable Nell Gifford – a Cotswold-raised, Oxford graduate who went further than following her childhood dream of joining the circus by actually creating her very own to star in. Bounding into the ring on an elegant white horse, she adds the chic to the boho spirit of the show.
Each year, the show revolves around a particular theme or story – this year’s Lucky ’13 tells the tale of a Serbian gypsy family who cause a stir among the snooty circus folk when they park their caravan under the big top and render chaos with their whimsical charms and frenetic accordion squeezing . It’s a storyline that will certainly resonate with a Cotwoldian audience, aware of the yearly frays between locals and gypsies who come and park their trailers on well-trimmed Cotswold verges for Stow Fair – one of Britain’s oldest gypsy fairs held twice yearly in Stow-on-the-Wold. By the finale, the gypsies and erudite circus performers have become the best of friends – not quite the happy ending found off stage.
For anyone a little bit enamoured with the cast, Circus Sauce is the after-show restaurant housed in its own bunting-strewn marquee where spectators can schmooze performers over a three-course feast rustled up using locally-sourced, organic ingredients – a prerequisite for impressing the chichi Daylesford-frequenting dinner guests. For us commoners, Barrington’s riverside pub, the Fox, can also provides an opportunity to share a pint with one of the twinkle-eyed jugglers or exotic showgirls who often celebrate there after the show.