A Cunning Blog

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A Night at the Circus


In a busy week in the South of England I managed to miss the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert at the Cadogan Hall, but I wasn’t too surprised to see that they got a rave review. Dead good band.

What I did get to was The Saturday Book, the 2012 show from Giffords Circus. It was a gorgeous summer’s evening on the common just above the ridiculously picturesque town of Marlborough, and there were little girls and boys running around with the sun in their hair and dusty bare feet. I suspect it was just the kind of scene Nell Gifford was thinking of when she dreamt up her traditional country circus.

We were ushered in by ladies in feathered head-dresses and Folies Bergeresque corsets. The big top was cosy, with a circus ring policed by an antique PC Plod complete with moustache and truncheon. The band dress code continued the cabaret theme, with an eccentric mix of stockings, garters and striped corsetry for the women, and hats for the men.

Clowning around on horses

Clowning around on horses

The show was an equally eccentric mix – music, song and dance, some well-worn pratfalls and a couple of excellent acrobat routines. There was a miniature talking pony (who couldn’t speak on the night I was there because he was – wait for it, wait for it – a little hoarse…) Ponymad Alex adored the big cob horses with backs like coffee tables, who cantered neatly around the tiny ring while people vaulted and bounced and balanced. Jester the dog joined in with ‘How much is that doggy in the window?’ (WOOF WOOF…) and Brian the Goose made a brief but memorable appearance.

Some acts were beyond eccentric. Nancy Trotter, the Pre-Raphaelite Girl, and her troupe of doves (Jupiter, Sybilla, Marie Anne, Antioch, Ray of Star, Greg, Moona, Pooch, Petroch and Peter) was quite, quite potty, a sort of emo-Edwardian interpretative dancer who also sang the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann (in duet with the trumpet player) in a low moan. Meanwhile the Godfathers, a four man acrobatic act from the Ukraine, were a highly satisfactory mixture of strong and agile and easy on the eye. Pat Bradford’s tap dancing – on hands and feet – was joyous and Tweedy the Clown did pretty much everything, including make us laugh.

Best of all, for me, was the band. Everyone seemed to play at least three instruments, and sing, and dance (and tightrope walk, and ride horses…) It was lovely to see loopy Nancy playing the French horn, and the French tightrope walker tucking into the trombone, while the usherettes also pulled out violins on occasion. And, I was assured, come nightfall they’d all be donning hard hats and high-viz vests to pull the whole shebang down, to get on the road to Devizes.

Many a young kid dreams of running away to join the circus. Nell Gifford really did. Now she’s made her own dream circus which brings together those very English traditions of music hall, panto and fairground curiosities. For the adults, the air feels heady with nostalgia for some fantastical past where Enid Blyton and Jane Austen wave to Sherlock Holmes in the street. For the kids, it’s strange and wonderful.

I’m so glad we went.

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