Big top returns to town

BILLY Smart's Circus returns to Ipswich this week for the first time in 40 years. KATY EDWARDS went behind the scenes at the big top.RUNNING away to the circus is every bit as romantic as it sounds - as two young performers with Billy Smart's troop can testify.

BILLY Smart's Circus returns to Ipswich this week for the first time in 40 years. KATY EDWARDS went behind the scenes at the big top.

RUNNING away to the circus is every bit as romantic as it sounds - as two young performers with Billy Smart's troop can testify.

English rose Becky Hunt was swept off her feet seven years ago by cheeky Venezuelan clown, Henry Ayala.

The couple, who met while working at Chessington World of Adventures, have been inseparable ever since and are now engaged to be married.

It did not take much for 24-year-old Henry, “Prince of Clowns” and high wire artist, to persuade Becky to join him and his family on the road.

“I had this chance to go and I asked her if she'd like to come away with me - and that was it,” he said.

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The Ayalas have been performing together for five generations. Also on the high wire are Henry's father - also called Henry - and brother Angel, 17.

His sister Amy, nine, and stepmother, Mona Lisa, a former trapeze artist, also travel with them, but are currently not in the show.

Henry has grown up in the circus, living and working with fellow performers of many different nationalities and speaks four languages fluently - Spanish, Italian, French and English.

“It is very exciting. Everything is new, every day - different people, different places. You can't really get bored. It's like a normal job, only we move on every week,” he said.

Becky, also 24, from Epsom, assists her fiancé in the ring with his comedy act. They intend to get married and raise their children on the road, although she would like them to go to a proper school after a few years.

“I know Henry is never going to stop doing what he does - we'll just have to come to some arrangement,” said Becky.

“I love the travelling. It's all very relaxed and easy. Henry is such a clown, even in normal life, but I prefer him without his make-up.”

Becky's family have taken well to their daughter's unconventional lifestyle.

“It's okay because her family really like me,” smiled Henry. “They come and stay for holidays. For them, it's something really different - they like it a lot.”

Henry has no plans to switch career. “I'm a born entertainer, it would be really hard for me to get a normal job,” he said.

“I might do some comedy or television, but I wouldn't swap this for anything else. Making people laugh is very special. It's very difficult, but when it happens, it's very rewarding.”

That is as may be, but with Becky and Henry's plans to launch the next generation of Ayalas, will their jobs pay enough?

“I can only say that I don't think there are many other 24-year-olds who make the kind of money I make,” Henry revealed.

Henry and Becky have their own plush, luxury trailer, which they share with their pet rabbit, Peanuts. They travel in convoy, moving from town to town, and practise their act usually twice a day.

“We're always trying new things,” said Henry, who began on the high wire and moved into clowning at the age of 14.

“Especially with comedy, you have to keep changing your act. It's a big challenge. A good clown has to be original, to walk into a room and make contact straight away with the audience.

“They have to like you from the beginning or it can be really hard. There's just you in the spotlight and 1,000 people waiting for you to make them laugh.”

The worst thing to have happened to Henry on tour so far was losing his new trailer in a crash last year in France when the driver behind fell asleep. Luckily, he was fully insured and no-one was hurt.

Despite the terrifying nature of his high wire work, 25ft above the arena floor and with no safety nets, Henry has never had an accident, although his brother damaged his tendons in a fall last year.

Another young performer to have grown up in the circus is Evgeniy Lukiyanov, 16, from Kursk, Russia, who juggles with his father, Vassily, a former acrobat.

His mother, Elena, a former Cossack rider, made their costumes and also works in the buffet, while his sister, Ailona, 19, performs a glamorous hula-hoop act.

Evgeniy said: “I enjoy travelling to different places. I wake up in the morning, do some reading, come to practise. I go to school here and take my exams in Russia.

“I only go back home for two weeks a year, so all my friends are in the circus now. When we aren't performing, we usually enjoy break-dancing or bodybuilding or going to the cinema.”

Other acts include the gold-painted Bulgarian “Tanga Troupe” - all former international gymnasts - Presto the magical clown, Duo Monastryrsky masters of the “quick change”, a Danish illusionist, British-born Leanne Perry on aerial silks and The Velenciuc stilt acrobatics.

Billy Smart's Circus will be playing at the Suffolk Showground in Ipswich every day until June 20. Show times are Wednesday to Friday, 4.45pm and 7.30pm, Saturday at 3pm and 6pm and Sunday at 2pm and 5pm. Tickets are priced from £8 to £20.

From there, the circus will move to the Avenue of Remembrance in Colchester from June 22 to 27, with show times and prices as for Ipswich.

To book tickets, contact 0870 4441505 or e-mail .

Billy Smart's Circus has had a long association with Ipswich.

In the old days, it would set up on a site in London Road, opening Monday to Saturday as Sunday shows were not permitted in the 1960s.

Billy Smart had just finished conducting the band at a performance in Ipswich in 1966 when he returned to his caravan and died. His three sons took over the running of the circus.

Billy Smart's Circus of old, which first appeared in Southall Park in 1946, was four times the size of today's operation.

With 5,000 seats and about 400 performers, it was truly huge and with a reputation to match.

But its sheer size began to cause problems as costs spiralled towards the late 1960s and it ceased touring in 1971.

However, the real nail in the coffin came when the circus was quoted a price hike of £150,000 to transport its elephants by rail and the final Television Circus from Billy Smart's was broadcast in 1983.

The new animal-free circus is on a scale that makes it practical and economic to revive the great name - and, organisers hope, the reputation of the original Billy Smart's Circus.

The Smart family is no longer involved, but have allowed the name to live on.

Ipswich is just one of the dates on its first full tour of Britain for more than 30 years. The circus will tour the rest of the UK until November, when it will close for the winter.

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