The latest Gifford’s show to pitch up and paint carnival colours on the sandy limestone of the Cotswolds Hills, The Painted Wagon is an old-school circus for new-school cowboys.
‘A miniature village green circus, bursting at the seams, packed, rowdy, tiny, a little band of performers who live nomadically, performing daily, engrossed in the serious business of making magic.’
Gifford’s Circus is the childhood dream come true of Oxford graduate turned popcorn vendor turned ring-mistress Nell Gifford. Now in their 16th year, the ragbag of self-inducted and bloodline circus folk have remained true to their whimsical manifesto.
Still small in both their size and their touring reach, the show feels authentic because it is. Travelling from pasture to pasture in matching 1930s caravans with pets and kids in tow, Gifford’s devotedly live and breathe a traditional circus life. The good kind.
Despite being landlocked in the heart of the sloane ranger dominion, there wasn’t a Union Jack bunting nor Barbour jacket in sight as my familial party of four arrived on their farm in Stroud. In fact, the cheerful silhouette of the big top and caravans rather rubs a few befitting grass stains into the chocolate box-y postcard sent from their circuit of southern England.
Directed by The Mighty Boosh‘s Cal McCrystal, The Painted Wagon is set in the old West, complete with the Dodge City Saloon Orchestra band (their drummer, dreadlocked in the image of Kurt Vile, apparently borrowed directly from Philadelphia.)
After vaudeville style clown Tweedy (no danger getting nightmares from this orange mo-hawked country bumpkin) provided an impromptu start by leading his pet electric iron Keith literally through the crowd, we were welcomed to the wild frontier by bandita saloon owner, Sarsaparilla Sal. Though, not before being interrupted by a zealous warning from a pair of 19th century Puritans (who turn out to be aerial acrobats Duo Lyrical Lyra before shedding their morals and clothes for a sky-high and god-relinquishing routine.)
The bulk of show was filled with incredible, fast-paced stunts by the twelve-strong team of vaulting gymnasts, all the way from Addis Abba. While the team caught their breath between different acts, there were episodes of gun slinging, lasso wielding and tequila juggling taking place in all directions.
Their animals made special short appearances, by way of dogs stealing sausages and a little donkey and two Eriskae ponies walking around the small ring with a mock cart and bundle. Matching grey horses – both just in simple snaffle bits – danced an equestrian version of the dosey-doe and black Fresian stallion Jim cantered a lap while chocolate coins were thrown to the crowd from his outlaw rider. The more demanding four-legged parts were replaced with fantastic fuzzy costumes – an outsized wolf head and paws and a pantomime style Bison operated by at least two pairs of human legs.
After reaching a riotious end with a can-can that got even the shyest members of the audience’s resident wedding reception on their feet, we were fed and watered from the Circus Sauce tent.
Thank heaven for the distraction of eating pizza and foamy shrimp and banana sweets in a travelling restaurant because I have never wanted to run away with the circus more.