At what age do clowns become scary? Certainly no-one has told children. American Horror Story and It can hardly have helped the profile of circuses in recent times, yet it seems our passion for high-energy, high-wire acts is undimmed. Certainly if the Gandeys show at Aintree is anything to go by.
The banning of wild animals at British circuses felt overdue and welcome – but id did pose the question as to how well circuses could adapt without a star attraction. Effortlessly, seems to be the answer here – although there are still animals roaming the ring, posing for selfies and giving high fives to kids. Yes, they’re costumed – although apparently no less frightening to some of the smaller ones.
One thing thankfully present and correct from our childhood memories of visits to the big top are the high-stakes thrills that draw all the right ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the assembled families and children. At one point, during a particularly dangerous stunt the little girl in front of us huddled down into the footwell, seemingly unable to look. We could empathise.
The sense of danger, fear and romance remains a powerful and evocative experience.
Yes there’s the juggling, the tumbling, the tightrope-walking and balancing (the latter by two young brothers) but it’s the Wheel Of Death that elicits the loudest gasps. Standing on a rotating pendulums spinning quickly and rising to the apex of the tent, two brothers perform feats they make look casual, but are clearly anything but.
To perform these skills in circumstances that invite grisly death on a daily basis – for the entertainment of watching families – is a fascinating insight into a very peculiar way of making a crust.
So too for the Cuban troope who bounce their comrades into the air on a massive seesaw – only for them to land on the shoulders of a waiting colleague. Or the couple of take turns to pull one anther into the air using only stretches of silk, providing another aspect to circus atmosphere: sensuality.
Consider the pair who hang from the underside of a revolving rocket ship high above the circus ring, their grasp of each others’ hands the only thing between them and a vertiginous fall. And you think your day job is difficult.
And then the Globe Of Death: three motorcyclists loop-the-loop, criss-crossing each other’s paths inside a steel ball – with only inches to spare. It’s both compelling and hard to watch. So too a contortionist that manages to wriggle into positions more unlikely than Theresa May on a trip to Brussels.
Amid it all Chico the clown comes on to warm up the crowd between stunts. Fear to laughter and back again is a thrill-ride of emotions – a boxing routine that will have Mums and Dad fearing some audience participation humiliation more than holds its own with the adrenaline-fuelled fare.
The circus still has thrills to keep restless tweens and Instagramming teens occupied. Perhaps it’s the mystique that keep the adults coming back. That sense of danger, fear and romance remains a powerful and evocative experience.
Gandeys Circus Greatest Show Tour
Until 3 march