Yesterday I went to the circus. A ‘WORLD-FAMOUS’ one, no less, which appeared to have forgone invitations to perform in the Tuileries, Vienna and Hyde Park in favour of a week’s run on Chingford Plain.
I work just up the road, but despite a couple of us sending out quite a lot of invites round the office with subject lines like ‘THE GREATEST SHOW IN CHINGFORD’, many appeared strangely unenthusiastic, and only seven people ended up skidding across a muddy field in the dark, making our squelchy way past the little caravan encampment towards a tired-looking big top.
I will admit to having expected just a touch more glamour. I realise this is probably because I have never actually been to a circus before, and my impression of them is based almost entirely on Octopussy. I went armed with visions of lithe Bond beauties in sequined dresses and close-cut ringmaster coats performing daredevil stunts while clowns who double as international agents hide behind balloons and moody Russian twin assassins fling knives at each other on spinning wheels.
At Cottle’s, there was just the one clown, with no discernible skills, least of all in the field of comedy. Aside from one rather fine episode where he made two complete strangers entwine themselves lovingly and awkwardly for a photo that he never seemed to get round to taking, his brand of amusement consisted mainly of smashing eggs at the front row, running round the stage with a pissing plastic monkey wrapped in a tablecloth (not as funny as it sounds) and getting fat kids from the crowd to play musical chairs (likewise). His acts were interminably long and regularly interjected between the feats of acrobatics, a bit like the songs from the new album that you have to endure when you go to see a band that you liked in the 90s. When he came on for the third time, a voice to my right whined ‘Oh MAAAN!’
That is not to say that the carnival atmosphere was not splendid, and the other acts not remarkable in their own ways. There was an outstanding juggler; a pair of deeply homoerotic acrobats, and one fellow (evidently, from his bearing, the diva of the outfit) who did the sort of aerial ballet thing with the wide blue cloths that hang from the ceiling. The acts were predominantly male, though there were a couple of ropey-looking sisters from Russia wearing wigs quite clearly manufactured out of mop heads, who juggled while balancing quite impressively on spinning boards, each other, or a combination of the two.
There were of course the regulars, like the spinning plates and the comedy car (one of my favourites, though if I were nit-picking I’d say the horn could have played a better tune). And then there was the moment when the ringmaster announced, ‘Fresh out of Africa – Mambo Jambo!’
Among our party was the girl who is responsible for diversity in the youth organisation in which we work. ‘Mambo Jambo? To me this sounds a little bit racist…’
Such fears proved entirely unfounded, as the four black guys in leopardskin loincloths skipped out waving what appeared to be spears but turned out to be apparatus for a flaming limbo. This device, and its accompanying dance, constituted the main portion of their act, when they weren’t having cartoon fights or pretending to set fire to their crotches to a backing track which sounded like the score for the Constant Gardener.
In the interval, members of the audience were invited to pay £3.50 for the privilege of having their photo taken in the ring with a couple of stagehands in grubby Mickey and Minnie Mouse outfits, and at 50p each this seemed an opportunity not to be missed.
So we queued up with the lines of shy children clutching bags of popcorn and light-up swords, and by the time our turn came, the comedy was all getting a bit much. The photographer had some difficulty in getting us all arranged within the frame.
‘Yeah, sorry about this’, I muttered to Minnie. ‘It’s ok’, he replied jovially in a a thick Eastern-European accent, heavy with the scratchiness of a 20-a-day habit. He adjusted his skirt and struck a glamorous pose for the camera.