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A Place Like No Other: Fool’s Delight, the circus that’s a feast for the senses

After experiencing the unbridled joy and startling creativity of Lil Rice, Dave Cross and Sam Goodburn’s big-top bonanza – combining food, music and some serious clowning about – Inigo realises there’s only one thing for it: it’s time to run away with the circus

Grace McCloud
Elliot Sheppard
Harry Cave
A Place Like No Other: Fool’s Delight, the circus that’s a feast for the senses

Roll up, roll up: the circus is in town! And everything is… Rather calm, actually. We must admit that, on the July morning of our visit – that of the first show of the Fool’s Delight summer season – we were expecting mayhem, but instead, it’s almost peaceful, albeit with a certain latency hanging in the air.

Something’s about to happen. Long-haired women in folksy flower crowns and Laura Ashley-ish frocks busy about looking like summer sprites (but more likely checking fire extinguishers are in place). Silken rags flutter from branches and the big top’s guy ropes. The tremulous yowl of a fiddle being warmed up floats out of an open-doored barn, carried by the same breeze that sends an empty trapeze to swaying tantalisingly.

Fool’s Delight is the brainchild of Lil Rice, a multitalented performer and the circus’ creative director, her chef partner, Dave Cross, and clown Sam Goodburn. Devised as more than just a day out, it’s a semi-immersive show of three parts, involving a processional promenade, outside performances and some impressive big-top action. And, if you’re lucky enough to join one of the evening performances, all this is interspersed with some seriously good food, a delectable course cooked by Dave served between each act. If watching someone fling themselves off that flying trapeze doesn’t get your heart racing, his cheddar rarebit semolina puffs will.

Some readers may recognise the setting: we’re in the garden of Ham Court, the Oxfordshire home of Matthew Rice – author, artist, Lil’s father and her neighbour on the farmstead. Today, just an hour or so before the show starts, Lil is herself entirely unflustered, standing outside the tent feeding her three-month-old son, Louis, while making sure people are where they’re meant to be. She is clearly experienced – her career began in 2011 when she joined Gifford’s Circus, run by her aunt, the late Nell Gifford, and this is her third show of her own – but she’s keen to emphasise the power of the circus family too. “You can’t run a circus without trusting people,” she says.

One of those she trusts is her brother Michael, one of the immensely talented folk musicians providing Fool’s Delight with its soundtrack – by turns joyous, wistful, high octane. It’s as much a part of the show as any other, Dave adds. “The aim of what we do is to give people a proper experience,” he says. “It’s not just theatre, it’s not just watching a band, or having supper, or seeing some acrobatics. It’s all those things.”

It’s also for everyone. “It’s the great leveller,” believes Lil. Sam agrees: “The essence of every action of a circus is targeted to both adults and kids – particularly clowning. The physical humour will get kids laughing, the tricks entertain the adults.” And Sam’s role in this show is nothing if not entertaining – the comedy foil. At various points throughout the show, he’s to be found haplessly, hopelessly surfing down a high-wire, pouring a bowl of cereal from atop a unicycle and juggling what must be half a packet of biscuits using his feet. “Custard creams are the best for that: triple-layered for weight. Or a Fox’s Cream Classic – but that’s a weekend treat.” It’s hard to tell if he’s joking.

It’s not all so silly (though when it is, it’s sublime). There are moments of great heart amid the high jinks – an impossibly lithe acrobat bending through hoops suspended from the ceiling, all while singing, for instance, or the death-defying finale, which sees a single performer swinging in a huge pendulum-like contraption, using her body as a counterweight. It’s called, we learn, the Wheel of Death – and it isn’t hard to see why. Somehow, she manages to smile.

There’s a cleverness to the capering too. The opening procession – think woodland creatures curled into trees, walking, talking hay bales, and dancers decked up in Morris-style rag coats – for instance, gives some sense of Lil’s vision for the show, inspired by English folk culture. (The last Fool’s Delight production took cues from witchcraft.) “I see our circus as an extension of those rituals and customs, in some way,” she says. “It’s very much of this place and of this land, which I know so well.” It’s something Dave picks up on too, with his super-seasonal fare. “We wanted to convey a sense of place in what we did,” he explains.

Sam sees that idea of reverting to something intrinsic as fundamental to the idea of circuses generally. “Circus acts are the expression of an emphasis on the existing, rather than an invention,” he says, adding, “It’s not acting. It’s about drawing out and accentuating something to comedic or dramatic effect – and reading the audience’s reaction as you go.” As a consequence, “everyone makes the show. It’s not written and imposed upon performers. They respond to the crowd and shift things accordingly,” he says. “The trick is to make everything seem like it was on purpose.”

None of this is to say that the show is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair. Far from it – not least in the case of the more dangerous acts, such as the trapeze or any pyrotechnic daring. “I suppose what it means, in its simplest terms, is that the show is built by its company of performers,” Lil adds. It’s why any show inevitably changes throughout its run, she adds. “They’re very elastic.” For this one, however, Sam has been banned from doing any clown numbers before Dave’s food comes out. “We could be waiting for 10 minutes otherwise.”

There is so much to admire here. The costumes, hand-made using recycled materials by Manuela Fleming, all for under £300. The fact that the big top – driven over to the UK from Hungary by Sam after he found it on Facebook Marketplace – is powered entirely by solar. Of course, those electrifying performers, athletes whose feats of fearlessness make your hair stand up on end. It’s impressive too that this – the team’s third show – was devised and produced in just four months and it has almost sold out. But really, the thing that takes the breath away is the one thing you can’t quite put your finger on in words or pictures: the magic of coming together with food, music and something spectacular to look at, marvel over and laugh at. As Lil explains, “It’s the most natural thing in the world in many ways. But it doesn’t get old, does it?”

Further reading

The next Fool’s Delight show, Stupidus Maximus, will run at Ham Court, Bampton, Oxfordshire, 12-15 October. Buy tickets here

For updates on future shows, follow Fool’s Delight on Instagram

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