From caravans in little greens and fields, Velasquez figures emerge into the hastily erected big Top in silks and plackets, ruffs and feathers and frilled pantaloons and cloth-of-gold cloaks: more Renaissance costumes than you’ll see in a week of modern Stratford. This classiest of village-green circuses always likes to have a theme, and this year it is called ANY PORT IN A STORM, and something to do with “a lost kingdom of the sea” melded with “the dark, closed and highly formal world of the Spanish court”.
Not that you’d think there was a sea theme, unless you buy a nicely eloquent and colourful programme – where they’re all posed chiaroscuro as portraits – and invent some mad sea-story to fit the various acts. It isn’t as literal as it was when a few years back Nell Gifford decided to turn the entire show into a retelling of War and Peace, complete with a marching goose. This is just very classy circus, international acts directed by Cal McCrystal with minimal ringmastering from David Pillukat, some stamping flamenco interludes and a comic heart in the great Tweedy the clown (sometimes looking unnervingly like Mark Rylance in one of his nuttier parts).
Oh, and interventions from some remarkably well-trained chickens. Especially the fluffy white one which between acts marches disdainfully all alone round the velvet rim of the entire ring, ignoring small children holding out their hands towards it.
McCrystal, master of physical theatre direction, keeps it sharp and fast-paced : sometimes the acrobatics are comic, sometimes startling (a swing act in particular). One is gently beautiful: Sergii Poliakov, “Acrobata Celestial” in renaissance silks strikes graceful poses on a harpsichord while a baroque soprano sings alongside.
The clowning, let me reassure coulrophobes, is un-traditionally theatrical (Tweedy’s attempted escapology is memorable). A highspot in the second half is when he, with the acrobatic Mustache Brothers and Pillukat, perform a “tribute” to all the other acts so far: hobby-horses, desperately failed acrobatics and a wicked drag parody of the traditionally pole-dancery poses of circus girls. That is quite brilliant. But the whole show ensures that there will never be a dull moment in its two hours, and that your candyfloss sugar-rush endures.
http://www.giffordscircus.com – touring on to Blenheim, Oxford, Chiswick and points west till 24 Sept
rating four diverse mice