Xanadu review – psychedelic circus evokes summer of love

Chiswick House, London
Cal McCrystal brings a woozy vibe to Giffords Circus, though these hippies are versatile performers and formidable athletes

We expect a display of random skills. But this remarkable travelling show from Giffords Circus takes its title from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and, like the poem, invokes a mood of dreamy ecstasy. Directed by Cal McCrystal (of One Man , Two Guvnors fame), it uses music and costume to evoke the psychedelic world of Hair and to suggest that everyone on honey-dew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise. The catch is, of course, that the performers are no woozy hippies but formidable athletes.

They also are not just expert soloists but part of a versatile ensemble. Michael Fletcher, the floral-suited compere, is joined as a singer by Lil Rice, whom we have earlier seen prodigiously whirling and twirling inside a hoop known as a cyr wheel. Jacob D’Eustachio, a juggler described as “the man with the flying balls”, and Anna Rastova, the daring lady on the trapeze, re-emerge in the big musical numbers. The same goes for the Hungarian Donnert family, who vault effortlessly on and off horses, and for the circus’s founder, Nell Gifford, who regally appears, sporting a white gown and chaplet, astride a handsome steed.

Michael Fletcher, centre, is the floral-suited compere in Xanadu
Michael Fletcher, centre, is the floral-suited compere in Xanadu Photograph: PR

But, although this is a circus with a summer-of-love theme, McCrystal injects it with the physical comedy he famously brought to One Man. There is a madcap clown, Tweedy, who, with his mischievous eyes and red quiff sprouting from a close-cropped skull, suggests an anarchic version of Shakespeare’s Puck. The running gag is that Tweedy is a fugitive chef escaping from the circus restaurant, but he also proves to be a pancake-catching acrobat and an adept unicyclist. The highlight, however, for slapstick addicts is the item where Tweedy is joined by the burly Mr Fips as they cover each other in viscous goo and spray the audience with water. This is a show where you go in sober and possibly end up sloshed. But the circus’s real achievement is to create a sense of communal joy currently rivalled only by the Nicholas Hytner production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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