Giffords Circus’s Lil Rice talks about the Hooley and aunt Nell Gifford
- Credit: David Loftus
When Nell Gifford told her niece, Lil Rice, “I need you”, Lil dropped everything. Now Giffords Circus’s producer and one of its headlining acts, Lil talks to Katie Jarvis about losing Nell. And about the Hooley, the magical Celtic show Nell planned – the show that will help bring happiness and healing once lockdown is lifted
The young woman in the black leotard pauses, back to audience. In one upwardly outstretched hand, she holds the rim of a huge hoop: a perfect framing circle without beginning or end.
As the first notes of music flow across the stage, she gently begins to turn the hoop – the Cyr wheel – and steps through it as lightly and exactly as a ballerina. And she sings.
Shadows settle on the place that you left
Our minds are troubled by the emptiness
A song of the infinite, wild, sadness of youth. Of events that spiral out of control.
Her voice is beautiful, strong and unsettling.
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She lets go of the wheel and it continues to turn of its own volition. Empowered by her; assuming a life of its own.
And then she does something impossible. She climbs into it, as if she has become the spokes; spinning round as one entity. And still her voice continues, unchanging and unchanged.
And if you’re still breathing, you’re the lucky ones
‘Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs
And as she turns and turns and gyres and turns, still singing effortlessly, it’s as if you’re watching an Escher drawing take shape; a mind-spinning something that you can see and not see. A Yeats poem of lovely impending something.
A constant rotation of something that shouldn’t be and yet is.
So what do circuses do during lockdown, I muse.
Are Tweedy and Keef filling time ironing creases out of the big top? Does Trill deliver priority pellets for performing doves? Is the drying washing, flapping in the sun, gathered by someone walking along the top of the line?
Lil Rice shakes her head down the phone. Running a circus is like running pretty much any other business. Emailing; on-line ordering; the usual stuff.
She’s the last person left running the office up on the windy Stroud hilltop of Fennells Farm, Giffords’ winter quarters. Though, to be fair, the problems posed by the introduction of lockdown have been more singular than most.
“We had a lovely Italian family – two brothers – who got stuck here, and we did have 12 Cubans. After three attempts at taking them to Heathrow, we eventually got them home!”
There are 10 of them living at the farm now.
So… what are they doing?
“There’s not a lot for us to do: I’ve got four or five hours’ work in the morning. But we’re trying to keep ourselves jolly and occupied – planting vegetables in the garden, making lunch, Easter egg hunts.”
It’s been a tough few months. An unspeakably tough few months. Losing the incomparable Nell Gifford – Lil’s aunt; and circus co-founder – who died last December, aged 46, after a long battle with breast cancer.
And then, coronavirus.
I don’t want this to be a sad interview. And it won’t be. (Everything about Nell was a glorious, joyous, life-affirming carousel.)
But I have to ask.
“It’s funny. It’s so strange, losing Nelly. And thinking we’d get the show together – her last show; a celebration for her. And then, suddenly, having that grind to a halt.”
Because Nell had planned it. She’d planned this year’s show. A celebration of the 20 years since she and Toti – her then-husband – threw a custard pie in the po-face of Conventionality and opened a Cotswold touring circus.
Ill as she was, Nell and Cal (inimitable Giffords Circus director Cal McCrystal) dreamed a show to cast an incomparable spell over 2020. The Hooley. A Celtic charm of fairies, elves and trolls.
And then Nell died.
And the show became not just an anniversary celebration, but a Nell celebration, too.
“It feels really very sad. Shockingly sad. Although Nelly talked about being ill lots, she was the kind of person you assumed would have kept on keeping on. She was an amazing tough warrior woman. Yeah. It’s been awful. It’s been really sad.”
Oh, of course... And how on earth do you cope when the very mechanism that you had to cope with – honouring her with a show – is, at least temporarily, taken away?
There’s silence for a moment.
“Nell walked this very precarious line between shrugging her illness off; and also being very solemn and serious at facing her future with the knowledge that there might not be much left of it. But she kept an amazing balance.
“If there’s anything I regret, it’s not listening to her more when she said, ‘I’m really ill’. I saw her every day and I couldn’t understand it. So my job with her was to tell her that she was fine; that it was all going to be fine…
“Sometimes positivity can be a little narrow-sighted, can’t it…”
Lil Rice couldn’t have ended up doing anything ordinary in life.
A logical impossibility.
Everybody is allowed one amazing person in their background. “But yours is a whole Midsummer Night’s Dream cast of the magical, the talented and the exotic,” I upbraid her, admiringly.
Where to start? Her paternal grandmother was Pat Albeck, designer extraordinaire, whose prints were sold by – among others – John Lewis and the National Trust.
“I was really lucky to have a very present Jewish grandmother who, wherever we moved, she and my grandfather would move a quarter of a mile away. She was a massive influence on my life; always had absolutely beautiful lipstick to match her bright pink or orange scarf. Very strict about her colourways and design - and about my personal life. Always liked to know everything that was going on.”
Did you tell her?
“You can’t keep anything from a Jewish grandmother!”
Impeccable dressed, with a loathing for ripped jeans (“Harrods dress-code was never to allow ripped jeans in-store, and that was very much something she adopted”), Pat was married to Peter Rice, the stage and costume designer closely associated with Opera Holland Park.
“My grandfather and Nell had a very sweet, serious relationship. You’d often find them at the top of a table at a dinner party, having conversations about design and theatre. My grandpa painted beautiful cards for [Giffords] opening night. Nell used to frame them all.”
And that’s just grandparents. (Not forgetting her maternal step-grandfather, the director Rick Stroud.)
So let’s carry on down the generations. Lil’s dad, Matthew Rice, is a painter and writer. And her mum is Emma Bridgewater, of the beautiful handmade pottery-fame.
What we all want to know, of course, is: Did they ever have rubbish crockery at the tea table?
“Well, of course! Mum and dad would always buy beautiful little plates at junk sales; always on the look-out for a really lovely little old cup and saucer. And that’s kind of where mum started, with her mother, my grandmother Char’s beautiful dresser with its mismatch of cups and saucers.”
No, then, in other words.
“Well, there wasn’t a lot of stuff made in China,” she agrees.
What she does remember is a Norfolk farmhouse full to the brim: mum, dad and four children (“And I grew up with Nell and Clover [her mum’s younger half-sisters] bringing their amazingly beautiful and fun friends to play at the weekend”). And singing – right from a tot – with her dad at the piano.
“My mum has a beautiful voice – she’d sing me and my sister to sleep when we were little. And then my dad has always played the organ and sung in church choirs. He taught me to sing a lot of jazz when I was younger; spirituals; and he taught me to sing by ear, so he would use tests on the piano and I would have to follow.”
“He’s serious about whatever art he’s taking part in. One of the very early songs we’d sing together was Alexandra Leaving by Leonard Cohen. Another favourite was Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
“Always quite serious. Dido’s Lament is something I learned early, which is probably why I went on to write quite sad blues and country.”
At 18, Lil decided to do something a million miles away from an idyllic childhood. She took herself up to Glasgow to read theology and philosophy.
It felt as if it was somewhere she could reinvent herself. It was a mistake.
Well, sort of a mistake.
“If you grow up in a family with a lot of brilliant people, especially as a teenager, you feel a lot of pressure to be good. To do really well. And I think going to Glasgow let me off the hook slightly. I was going off to do something totally different to my parents; which I think now was a bit silly because there’s so much to offer from the art in my family.”
After two years, she left, depressed and unhappy. Nell, she says, saved her life.
For Lil took time out to live for a year with Nell, Toti, and their newly-born twins, Cecil and Red. It was a time of contrasts: one day mucking out the horses; another, covered in sequins, parading down Cheltenham High Street; on the third, she’d be packing up posters in the office to send out.
And, all the time, Nell would be there, encouraging her. “When I didn’t really know what to do or what I was good at, she was always so good at pushing me to learn something else – Try this! Try this!”
It worked. In 2012, Lil enrolled in circus school – London’s National Centre for Circus Arts – where she trained in the Cyr wheel: an acrobatic steel ring that the performer stands inside. Even though Lil was 22, without previous gymnastic training; and even though many of her fellow students were lithe 18-year-olds; she used her self-doubts to challenge and test herself.
It was the same bloody-minded force that kept her going as she ascended the London Eye as part of the Cultural Olympiad the day before the Olympics began. During six months of training, Lil had had to learn to overcome a sickening vertigo. And she finally proved she’d overcome it by dancing hundreds of feet over London.
“There’s a ladder in one of the legs – this tiny ladder that just feels it’s going on for ever. If you’re Person Five in a chain of 30 dancers, all scaling a ladder, you can’t stop, however terrified you feel. There’s someone in front of you to keep you going; there’s someone underneath you to keep you going, so you just have to keep going.”
So she conquered that vertigo because she had to?
“I’m somebody who, if they’re told they can’t do something, finds a way to make it work. The Olympics was the first job I had as a performer. I was very out of my depth. But it was also unbelievably, amazingly exciting.”
She’s one of very few women to perform Cyr wheel, is Lil Rice. And maybe the only one to sing as she does so.
But she’s gone straight to the top. She and two Cyr best friends, who trained together, have toured with their award-winning company, Alula, to great acclaim. And she’s also a talented singer-songwriter, performing and recording with Ollie Clark as Rice and Clark.
But despite her burgeoning success, when Nell called in 2018 – in the middle of a tour Lil was doing – Lil dropped everything (with the blessing of Alula) and came running.
“I need you,” Nell said.
“At that point, we’d had so many diagnoses – 10 years, then five years, two years. I just stopped listening to any of that and assumed this was where I was going to be and I would be with Nelly for as long as Nell was here...
“I just didn’t think it would only be two years.”
(So Lil says that Nell once ‘saved her life’. How wonderful that Lil saved Nell’s, too, right up until the end.)
Lil is now Giffords Circus’s full-time producer. “And I’m not saying I’ll never do my own thing again, because I’m sure I will. But Giffords takes up all of my soul.”
Are Nell’s children OK? As OK as they can be, I ask.
“They’re living with Toti, where they’re loved and safe. It’s a horrific thing to deal with but Nell was always very open with them. And I think somewhere in their darling little heads, they knew this would happen at some point. Nell had prepared them.”
And now we’re all waiting. Waiting for the clouds to lift. Waiting for the moment when the Hooley can go ahead - for Lil, for Cecil and Red, for Cal, for Giffords, for Nell.
For all of us.
“We have, in our back pockets, an unbelievably beautiful show – a Celtic party of fairies and elves and trolls,” Lil says.
“And after all of this sadness and weird deafening-quiet, there will be a brilliant coming together of people, and I think the Hooley will be the place to be for that. A bit of joyful escapism. We will do an amazing show. We just don’t know when.
“Everyone needs a little bit of magic.”
• To keep up to date with the Hooley, visit giffordscircus.com