10-Circus-actOn a family day-out in the Essex town of Saffron Walden, Matt Thompson and his young family enjoy a trip to Chaplin’s Circus

 A visit to the circus has always been magical. Walking into a brightly coloured big top is like entering a world quite detached from the everydayness of real life. Here in this alternative world, the rules are different. For a few hours, all that matters is having fun. As much fun as you can possibly cram in. For kids, especially, it’s enough to make you burst. So when the circus visited close to home this summer, we had to go.

Beside herself with excitement

Being decades since I last went to a circus, I think I remember loving my previous visits. I’m told by my parents that I did. Even still, I was a bit apprehensive how my two youngsters would get on.

I was sure my four-year-old would be beside herself with excitement. But what about my two-year-old? At that age, there aren’t many kids who’ll happily stay in one place for hours at a time. And mine’s the same. He wants to run around, discover new things and generally wreak havoc. Taking him was a gamble. Or so I thought until I arrived. Turns out I needn’t have been worried.

Relax and have a great time

Walking onto Saffron Walden Common, where the huge red and white striped tent had been erected, there were kids and parents everywhere; all of them hyped like it was their birthday. If nothing else, it was clear I wasn’t alone in taking very young children along.03-Face-painted-brother-and-sister

When we arrived at the circus gate, my mind was put further at rest.

As our tickets were taken from us we were greeted individually and told “remember, when you walk through that door you’re here to relax and have a great time”.

As first impressions go, it couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming.

A kindly, family feel

Inside the front of the big top, an area had been set up where you could indulge yourself with treats reserved only for occasions like this.

So an antiquated confectionary stall sat in one corner, selling all those old pocket-money sweets no-one stocks any more. Along from that, a decorated refreshments trailer offered fresh candyfloss, popcorn, toffee apples, tea and coffee; while elsewhere a hostess with an ice cream tray sold fairy wands and glow sticks for the kids.

It may seem laboured to witter on about the show’s preamble. But it’s done so well. All staffed by performers, it adds to the kindliness and family-feel of the occasion.

That’s especially true of the kids’ face painting stand, which was cheerily worked by the show’s female clown. When we visit there was a queue of children all waiting patiently to get made-up by her – a queue that included my two, who each breathlessly described how they wanted to look before being decorated as a pirate and a butterfly.

If the idea was to excite the crowd before showtime, then it worked a treat. The kids were beside themselves before we even took our seats.

Boom, boom

Having been ushered into the stage area, it’s not long after the show begins that it becomes clear this isn’t your usual circus troupe. The performance today has a strong narrative and a story into which the acts fit.

Set in the 1920s, it’s all cleverly done, with the tale taking place in the backstage area of a failing circus that’s enlisted the services of famed inventor and father of flight Orville Wright to turn around its fortunes – the idea being, of course, that with a Wright brother at the helm the circus will really “take off”. Boom, boom!

As you’d expect, it’s more pantomime than it is Shakespeare. So it’s dead easy to follow, and even if some of the gags are pitched at parents and fly deliberately over kids’ heads, there’s always something on stage to keep even the youngest of children jaw-dropped in infant wonderment.

Proper entertainment

For two hours we’re spoilt for talent, with expert performances in rope walking, hula hooping, magic, aerial ribbons, unicycling (while skipping), singing, joke-telling, trapeze and all round showmanship.

It’s a variety show cum theatre performance cum circus, and it’s entertaining from the first moment to the last, littered throughout with cheers for the good guys and choruses of enthusiastic booing for the story’s pantomime villain.

This is proper entertainment, and impressive not least because it keeps the kids absolutely enthralled. For the first time ever our two-year-old isn’t up and about and causing mischief. He’s sat still, and I tell you what, that’s some impressive magicianship right there.

How’d they do that?

Of course, as any good ringmaster would insist, the best’s left till last with the show’s finale being the human cannonball.

It’s a trick that’s teased throughout the performance, and one that’s well worth the wait, exploding in a magnificent “how’d they do that?” moment.

It’s a great ending to a fantastic show, and as we filter out of the tent back into the real world, it’s clear by the grins on the kids’ painted faces that this has been an afternoon’s treat they’ve appreciated, understood and loved – one their parents will treasure for a long while too.

Matt’s top tips

If you’re planning to take in a performance at Chaplin’s Circus, do yourself a favour and get there in good time to enjoy the preshow goings-on in the front of the big top. It’s a great way to get into the swing of things, especially for kids who’ll love the face painting and popcorn munching.

Most importantly, like we were told on our way in “remember to relax and have a great time”.

Useful links


About Matt Thompson

Having started out as a student music journalist back in the late 90s, today Matt spends his days writing, editing and talking about reporting styles for a variety of publications and organisations. He’s keen on Britpop and photography, and wears out running shoes more frequently than his wallet would prefer.