DUBAI // When Fraser Hooper donned his funny hat and oversized coat and strode mysteriously towards the centre of Dubai's Marina Walk bearing a brown handbag, the crowd of children clustering around were spellbound.
No words were spoken. Mr Hooper's antics with stool, rope and drum were enough to keep the youngsters in fits for an hour.
The British street theatre performer has toured the world, sending children into hysterics with his slapstick gags. And Mr Hooper's travelling show has now rolled into Dubai, where he will perform at the city's first street festival, which opened yesterday at Dubai Marina and runs until April 2.
"It may sound a bit sad, but from the age of four I knew I wanted to be a clown," said Mr Hooper in a solemn tone at odds with his comical demeanour.
"I remember seeing Charlie Chaplin and clowns at the circus, and that was the only thing I ever wanted to do," he said.
The line-up of 11 carefully selected street performers is intended to conjure an atmosphere reminiscent of Covent Garden, the celebrated thoroughfare of street performers in London, said Stuart Every, the managing director of Dolphin Creative Events, which organised the festival.
"Covent Garden is a benchmark for street performers, and if you have performed there then you are a seasoned artist," said Mr Every.
There are only about 100 good street artists in the world, he said, and picking the right ones for the Emirates was no easy task.
"I wanted a mixture of those who communicate with the audience, have physical shows and circus acts," he said. "We also wanted a mix of some young talent and some old hands."
Among the performers are DynoMike from Canada, who will be displaying his balancing act on a 10-foot unicycle, The Rob FireNix Comedy Circus FireShow from the UK and Pedro, the street clown from Portugal who Mr Every admitted was one of his personal favourites.
"This is the only art form where there is a connectivity between the audience and the artist because there is no stage barrier," he said.
Mr Hooper said that kind of proximity allowed performers to improvise according to the audience reaction.
So when Ava Hines, aged four, walked up to Mr Hooper and started pulling on his trousers yesterday, he involved her in a humorous tug of war that pitted the toddler against three men. "I pulled all of them and won," said a giggling Ava. "It was a lot of fun."
Her mother Nicola Hines, 33, from London, said the festival proved a great day out for the family. "I have been to a couple of street performances back home and these ones here are similarly entertaining."
Ewa Woroszyl, 40, who was taking the air at the Marina on her regular stroll, described the festival as "a little bit of Europe in Dubai".
"More outdoor activities should be organised as they appeal to children and adults," she said.
Herbie Treehead, a performer who styles himself the "successful failure", said street performances were "less exclusive" - and therein lay their beauty. "We meet people right from Princes to those who do not have a job at our performances," he said.
Mr Treehead began his career as a performer in 1980, when unemployment was rife throughout his native Britain. Aged 16, he found inspiration in an act he saw with his brother at Covent Garden.
Since then, he has travelled to 46 countries to perform his act, which includes mime, shouting and elaborate displays created out of the contents of a suitcase.
"People from every walk of life stand beside each other and for that little amount of time with us, they have forgotten who they are, what their problems are, or how much money they have or do not have. To be responsible for that is a great feeling," he said.
Natalie Weston, 37, who has lived in Dubai for 12 years, said the festival was a great idea which should have been introduced a long time ago. "I would have liked to see a full street of performers, with stilt-walkers and jugglers scattered on the entire walkway, but this is a good start," she said.