Big Day

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Often, when I have some kind of big gig coming up, the night beforehand, I'll be sitting on my sofa, relaxing, and every so often, I'll remember what I'm doing tomorrow, and a stab of cold anxiety will bloom in my belly. Then I'll breathe deeply, reassure myself, and it'll go away, only to re-shiv me twenty minutes later, as if to say “Hey, idiot. Don't forget that thing you're doing tomorrow, which could go horribly wrong, huh?”

But last Friday night, as I sat on my sofa, there was so stab of anxiety. No sudden shiver to remind me of potential failure. I felt, as the kids probably don't say, totes chill. Which was odd, because the next day was, indeed, a big one.

Somehow I had been asked to deliver a TEDx talk at Kings College London, on the theme of “Embracing Madness”. I'm a fan of the TED talks, so was genuinely thrilled to have been asked. If that wasn't enough, on the same day I'd be hosting another installment of “Mat Ricardo's London Varieties” at the Leicester Square Theatre, involving a couple of surprise guest acts, and half an hour of new material from me.

I talk about this every so often, but this is very much one of those days that, if I jumped back in time and told my teenage self about it, my teenage self would fix me with a side-eye and mumble “Nahhhhh. Bollocks”. But no, not bollocks. Actually happened.

If there's one thing I've learned from thirty years of being a juggler, it's that practice makes, if not perfect, then at least plausible. So I spent the two weeks leading up to my big day working hard – writing and rehearsing the TEDx talk, and the new material, until I was bored with both. The great juggler Trixie LaRue used to practice every trick in her act ten times before she went on stage to perform. If it didn't work every single time out of ten, she didn't do it on stage that night. I always think of her when I'm bored with rehearsal. Trixie would do it ten times, perfect. So will I.

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My talk was about the perceived madness of someone (me, in fact) dedicating their life to being a variety star, when, at the point of me deciding this, the health and popularity of the artform was at an all-time low. But what it really was, was a bit of a love letter to street performing. I talked about how the discovery of Covent Garden, my acceptance into a global family of street performers, and the countless things I learned from that world, saved my life, gave it direction, and gave me the validation that, up until that point, had eluded me. Without busking, I wouldn't have any of whatever it is that I've got. No question. I'll never not love that world, and it was my honour to get a platform to say it out loud. (It was filmed, and will appear on the official TED YouTube channel in a month or so, and I'll tweet about it when it does).

It seemed to go well, but I couldn't stick around. I said thank you for my souvenir mug, stole a handful of complimentary protein bars, and jumped into a taxi. There was time for a big bowl of gnocchi gorgonzola with some delightful people, and then it was back to work. I hid myself in my dressing room at the Leicester Square Theatre and carefully deleted the file in my head labelled “TED talk”, so that the script for tonight's variety show was front and centre in my brain. I warmed up. The other performers started arriving. It became apparent that the show was a sell-out. I was grinning without planning to.

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The first time I ever successfully pulled a tablecloth, it felt a bit like this. So much could go wrong. Should, even. But it didn't, and the cool thing happened, and, also, wow. The fact that any one single person would, on a Saturday night, in London, buy a ticket to my show? That still leaves me dumbfounded and flummoxed. That a whole theatre full of people did? Well, as my old pal Vinny would say – Behave.

The show was a blur. I was that giggly kind of frazzled. I'd been up since 5am, was full of too much coffee and out of my mind on endorphins. At one point, a stupid trick with a fidget spinner took a couple of attempts because my hands were shaking – not from nerves, but from tiredness and coffee. But everything else worked. And the surprise guest acts were both just perfect. You know you're onto a good thing, when whoever is on stage is being watched from the wings by all the other acts, grinning and clapping.

There was juggling, beautiful magic, ridiculous comedy, escapology, a psychic duck and a very real dove. There was laughter, applause and gasps. And in the middle of it all, was the beaming punch-drunk schmuck in the three piece tweed, who is writing this.

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I want to say thank you to everyone who helped make it such a memorable day. To the TEDx Kings College people for inviting me to speak. To my agent Hannah for making it happen, and continuing to understand this smorgasbord of well-dressed but complicated oddness that she represents. To the Leicester Square Theatre for always making me feel so bloody welcome. To the other incredible performers who guested in the show – Ada Campe and Oliver Tabor – nothing but love for these variety monkeys. And to everyone who bought a ticket to come see the show – best audiences ever, and I've seen a decent number of 'em.

There's only one more show of this season left. Saturday November the 25th. You know the deal – every show is different, and every guest is a secret until they step on stage.

Click here and book your tickets now.

Dropped jaws guaranteed.

And so begins what might be a very interesting year...

After 30 years of being the undisputed go-to guy for performing feats of dexterity live on stage, I've got a problem - I think I've done all the tricks I can think of. So, in what could be the dumbest move of my career, or the most fun, I'm issuing an open challenge for my next one man show.

I'm betting that you that you can't think of a trick that I can't learn.

Share the video, tweet me you craziest ideas, and I'll spend the next year desperately trying to learn the best ones. The resulting successes and failures will form my next theatre show "Mat Ricardo vs The World", which will premier at the Edinburgh fringe in August 2018.

There are a couple of rules, so watch the video for the details, and then give me your best shot and follow me on Twitter  and Instagram to see how my year develops.

Gladwell says I need 10000 hours to become an expert is any one thing, right? I've got less than that to learn whatever you people throw at me. This is going to be an adventure. I'd better make some coffee.

Spread the word - it's Mat Ricardo vs The World!

Canadian tour part 2: Prairies and Perogies

The next stop of my Summer tour of NiceMerica is Grande Prairie. A town that I only learned how to properly spell, on the day I was leaving. It's a small town, based on the booming oil industry, so although to my know-nothingly judgemental eyes, it looks blue-collar and small-time, there's money here. Money that is, apparently, being invested, in part, into the arts. Hence me. Hooray.

Outside my hotel window is a freeway, and parked along the sliproad between that and my room, is a line of huge, muscular trucks. Chrome caked in dusty mud, fenders somehow squinting into the sun, and gas hissing out of an exhaust next to a sign that reads “Venting is normal”. Tell me about it, mate. If this were my native England, then these trucks would be blandly ugly, and I wouldn't care, but its not, and so to me, they're iconic. My lack of knowledge of the world they represent making them mysterious and beautiful. Back on my side of the hotel window I turn on the TV and gawp at something called Timbersports, which seems to be some kind of extreme lumberjacking. There are profiles of the participants, CGI intros, pumping rock music, WWE style entrances, and then..they just hack away at a log with an axe. OK then.

We take a trip to an even smaller town called Beaverlodge, to do a promotional appearance. While the grown-ups set up the technical stuff, I go for a wander. Quiet streets full of low, wide, clapboard houses in pastel shades, each with a matching pickup truck. The dry warm breeze giving the dusty sidewalks the occasional little mini tornado. I find myself walking into “Golden Guns and Tackle”, the local gun store, and as the bell hanging over the door dings, I'm greeted by some very friendly women, who keenly chat to the man who is not from here. It's mainly hunting-focused, with racks and racks of rifles, both behind, and in front of the counter. Black ones, camouflage ones, and pink ones with flowers on for the kids. For reals. The lady behind the counter catches me staring at the guns, and asks where I'm from, I tell her, and I apologise, saying how strange it feels for a Brit to be in a shop with so many guns. She asks why. I assumed people knew that Britain doesn't have guns in the same way we know that some countries do, but I guess I was wrong. I tell her about our lack of firearms. She says “But y'all still have gun stores, right?”, “well, no”, I tell her. And she visibly recoils, her eyes wide, at the very idea.

Also, her store sold camouflage lingerie, because of course it did.

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The next morning I'm up early to appear on the local rock station 2DayFM. I like doing radio, it always seems fairly easy and fun, and as anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm totally at home talking about myself. I meet Evan, the delightful breakfast show host, who has one of those awesome and perfect American-ish DJ voices both on air, and off. I also meet Justine, his co-host, who immediately points out that she's wearing slippers because the in-studio webcam can't see her feet. Justine values comfort, and who can blame her.

The weekend flies by, the whole town comes out, as does the sun, and the shows are lovely. The audiences really pay attention, and much of my more subtle material (I CAN BE SUBTLE, SHUT UP) gets bigger laughs than usual, which is unexpected and great. We end the weekend having dinner at one of the producers houses – tired, achey, heads full of the echoes of applause and laughter, eating potato salad and drinking root beer as the sun goes down over the prairies outside. Not bad.

And then the next morning we all pile back into the tour bus and drive ten hours, to our next stop.

 

We arrive at our hotel in North Battleford, excited. Not only do we have a couple of days off, but the hotel, we have been told, has a waterpark! Slides and a jacuzzi, just down the corridor from your room! What finer way for some variety idiots to spend some downtime?

Flash forward 24 hours and we're at a different hotel. Long story, involving massive bedbug infestation and surly hotel management, which ended with the frankly stunning achievement of moving all the performers, staff, and all of the show equipment out of the hotel without any of the staff noticing. We did quite the mother of all runners. And the water slide was broken anyway.

This town is much smaller than our previous stop. Shelley, the festival director, talks of wall to wall sky, and she ain't kidding. Everything looks wider here. And sparser. The town centre has little in it – mostly bingo halls and liquor stores. But ten minutes drive out of town, along the big highway that runs along the train tracks, is the retail park. Big box stores, each almost as big as the centre of town. These places are as if an alien had designed a town – there are shops, places to eat, roads – but it's still less than the sum of its parts. Functional and nothing more.

Its hard to walk around, as these places are not designed for someone not in a car. The paths are dusty and muddy at the same time. At one point I get surrounded completely by hornets, dozens of them, all doing laps around me. Dogs bark at me from behind a chain link fence when I get too close to their owners car. I stop in front of a shape on the side of the road, the same colour as the dust it lays on. I move closer. A coyote? Dead, for a long time. It's head intact and frozen in a yawn. Its tail and back legs splayed out. Everything in between is just a seething mass of maggots. I stand there, in my suit, hat and sunglasses, staring at it. Thinking what a long way from home I am, and how, to people passing in cars, I must look like a scene from a David Lynch movie.

When I go into shops, my suit guarantees that I get viewed with a mix of amusement and suspicion. Half “Where did this odd creature come from?”, and half “What the hell does he want with us?”

At night, huge trains roll slowly through town. Hundreds of freight cars pulled by four or five engines all stacked up at the front. They shake the town with low, loud honks as they move stuff from somewhere bigger to somewhere more important. They don't stop.

During the days before the shows start, I start to develop a creeping dislike for this place. Careful not to mistake not understanding something for not liking it, but maybe, slightly, that's what happens. It seems to me that when you live somewhere like this, you feel the need to either explore and push outwards, or to retreat inwards. I think my fear was that its always easier to retreat. That the wide horizon would breed a narrow mind.

Then the shows begun, and I was pleasantly surprised. As I set up my first show, I play with some kids – a gaggle of impossibly cute and scrappy children from a First Nation family. They're glamorous mums sat chatting in huge sunglasses while the kids competed to see who could show me the funniest face. They pull their ears, pop their eyes, stick out their tongues – blue from snowcones – and giggle back at me as I laugh at them. Other kids come to talk to me, and climb on me, and play with me. I stare out at the people waiting for my show – families of all colours, punk kids with crazy hair, young hipstery couples – and I see a diversity I hadn't predicted. I see the community that events like this are for. A community where kids go on adventures on their bikes and come back with scraped knees. A community small enough that things like this can make a difference.

Two teenage girls come to talk to me. One in a wheelchair with a cast on her foot. I ask her what she did to her leg. “Old injuries”, she says. “You're young – how do you have old injuries?”, I ask her. She shrugs “I'm a fucking klutz”, grins, goes back to sucking on her candy pacifier, and squeals as her friend spins her chair around in circles.

I discover, halfway through the weekend, that the town is also having its first ever Pride. In the park, across the road from my green room, there are a couple of little tents with rainbow flags, so I walk over. On the fencing around the park, paintings of rainbow flags, people holding hands, trans rights slogans, and other weepily great things, have been taped up. They notice me, and have seen my show, so we chat. It's their first year. They had a parade. I can easily imagine how hard it must have been organising this in such a rural small town. But like I said, towns like this are small enough that it's easier to make a difference. I come back after my shows with all the coins I got in my hat and donate them to next years pride.

This is a place that has seen better days. There's not a huge amount of money here. There's racism. I heard it. But that's a lot of the world, not just this town. And the world is big, which is why the intolerance and unpleasantness one can find in it often feels like an unbeatable foe. But in a small town like this, having a weekend in which people from all over the world come and do shows, and anyone is allowed to watch, regardless of background, income, or anything else - is a powerful weapon for good. It illustrates that if people who don't get along share a common goal – even if its just watching an idiot like me for half an hour – then they can get along. It's easy. It shows that if you have stupid dreams of getting out of your town, or being an artist, or being different – it's totally possible – because here are some people who all did it.

 

 

Dont forget to book your tickets to

MAT RICARDO'S LONDON VARIETIES

Three unique nights of variety, comedy and surprises.

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Edmonton to Edmonton

I was born in Edmonton, but not this one. This one is currently scrolling past me as I sit on a bus with a handful of other performers, cruising out of town after ten days worth of festival. This Edmonton isn't in my native North London, but in Alberta, Canada, and, as my bus rolls past Humpty's Family restaurant and Hudson's Bay homewares, and slipstreams onto the freeway, just by where McDonalds and Tim Hortons glare at each other across the street, I thought I'd write a few thoughts about the last week and change.

I spent most of the flight here calm, chilled, but with irregular spikes of sudden panic. I don't do outdoor shows as regularly as I once did, and although they're still some of the most rewarding and enjoyable things that I do, there's always a little period of adjusting back to the medium. This period tends to involve random little jolts of electrified worry, spasming out of nowhere, and filling my brain with things I need to remember to do, things I need to remember to find out how to do, and twelve dozen different flavours of “what if...?”

It's like how sometimes, when you're drifting off to sleep and jolt yourself awake, you think you were dreaming of tripping or falling. That's not what happens. What happens is that, for whatever reason, your muscles spasm, waking you up, and then your brain scrambles to find a reason that your body did that, and fabricates a memory of tripping or falling. It gives you a plausible backstory to explain the feeling away. It's true. Crazy, right? Well, it's kinda the same with stress. I'm lightly stressed because I'm going away, leaving my two favourite ladies (ok, one of them is a cat), to do my stupid job, and from that point on, very little is guaranteed. What if it rains? What if nobody likes me? What if I'm no good at this any more? My brain tries to find reasons to explain away my baseline anxiety, but the bottom line is, it's a bit of a stressful job, but it'll probably all be fine. (Spoiler: It all turns out fine)

I get to the hotel and unpack. I'm very happy to find out that the hotel has a gym. Exercise and meditation are good for keeping your shit together when working away from home. I also brought my camera. I'm pretty shy, but having a camera gives me the inspiration to go out looking for interesting things to see, and the bravery to talk to people. It's sometimes a little easier interacting with the world through a lens.

Then its downstairs to the conference room and meeting all the other performers. I've written before about how one of the sad parts of my job can be that many of ones friends are scattered around the world, and part of your life for short periods every couple of years. The flipside to this is the joy of being in a completely new part of the world, walking into a room, and seeing a bunch of people that you love, as happy to see you as you are to see them. Quickly, we all catch up, new friends are introduced, and in no time we're a gang again. Stresses reduced by the simple knowledge that they are shared.

At one point in the introduction meeting, a local performer stands up, and addresses the people who have travelled from outside Canada. “Here”, she says, almost sternly but not quite, “We say thank you to the bus driver. That's just what we're like. So....”, and she fixes the room with a stare. This is Canada, dammit, and you will be DELIGHTFUL. Perfect.

On the morning of the first day of shows, news comes through the social media grapevine that one of our global family has died. Nils Pol was a street performer, juggler, clown. He had struggled with cancer for more than a while, and it finally put him to sleep. We were sad, of course, but being street performers, talk quickly turned to tales of silly things he'd done, shows, gags, and proof was instantly and effortlessly given to the theory that you live on through your work. There he was, living on. More than that, Nils designed the best juggling hat you could buy. We all use them. If you've ever seen me do my hat and cane routine – thats a Nils Pol hat. Every street performer who does hat tricks, used one of his beautiful hats, so there it is, he's been in all of our shows for years, and will continue to be, except now, whenever we look at the hat in our hand, it'll mean something extra.

On the first day I arrived I'd noticed a good looking diner. If you know me, you'll know I prize a good greasy spoon above most things in life, so I made a mental note to go back. Boy howdy did it deliver, when I did.

The Commodore Restaurant isn't huge, but it's big enough to feel spacious and calm. Tables run along one long wall, and a couple of curved counters flanked with stools along the other. My friend Fraser and I sit down and get greeted by Wilma, who presents us with the breakfast menu, which has remained pretty much unchanged since the place opened in 1942. More combinations of eggs and hotcakes than you might think were mathematically possible. When Wilma returns with my omelette, home fries and french toast, we chat some more. She hasn't been working there long, she says, just 33 years. Seven days a week. Never had a vacation. But her house is paid off, and she put her kid through college, and she loves hanging out with all her regulars every day. She's genuinely cheerful. It's not a “have a nice day” act, she's happy. Interested in the people she meets. Curious, and aware, completely, of the emotional importance of her job. I tell her how much I love places like hers, and how important they are, and a customer, eavesdropping, agrees.

The week passes. The more shows I do, the more the anxiety lessens. Like a boxer loosening up into the middle rounds and finding their rhythm, all the little nuances of my act come trickling back to me, and before long I'm bouncing around, having lovely show after lovely show. I enjoy telling my audiences I'm from the other, “slightly more stabby” Edmonton. I get laughs from saying that, yes, I've come all the way from London – the real London, not their cheapo Canadian knock-off. As often happens when I work places like this, the ex-pats come and chat to me after my shows, telling me where in the UK they came from, and how long they've lived out here. I get given free ice-creams, pose for selfies, and generally have a very fine time being reminded of what a beautiful transaction street performing is. Everyone leaves happy – me and them – win win.

It's mostly very hot weather. In one show I have two distinct dizzy spells. It's hard work. I like hard work. My skin is dry and rough from the sun. My throat raspy from yelling jokes at strangers. My circus schtick makes my back throb. There is no more satisfying kind of exhaustion. My moods swing, and I do all I can to keep myself stable, but sometimes you just don't have the tools. One morning I wake up feeling low. Screwy circadians from the jetlag don't help. I roll myself out of bed and convince myself to go to the gym. An hour of cardio later and it doesn't seem to be helping much. I sit down on the weights bench and start lifting, and my phones shuffle throws up a silly, hardly listened to, song, which is way too embarrassing to name (“Gettin' jiggy with it” by Will Smith), and the dumb bouncy positivity of the thing unplugs a valve in my head and suddenly I'm doing dumbbell curls while crying and laughing. Which is, of course, when someone else comes in to use them gym, sees me, does a perfect U-turn, and leaves. You never can tell what's going to convince the black dog to leave, right?

On the final night of the run, we take over city hall, and turn the spectacular seat of local government into our playroom for a night. Nearly a thousand people come and sit on the stairs, line the walls and watch all the artists do something different. I get to be a part of a hat juggling routine. Our own little secret tribute to Nils Pol. I'm also lucky enough to be the person chosen to open the show. A spotlight finds me two stories up, I saunter to the top of a long flight of stairs, and slide down the bannister, as the spotlight follows me. The crowd actually gasps. Then I do it again, down a second long staircase, sliding off the bannister onto the marble floor and taking stage centre as a thousand people applaud my coolness. It was, no doubt at all, one of the most pleasurable moments of my performing career. No real trick, no gag, just character, stagecraft, and the thing that my parents used to shout at me for doing. It was two days ago, and when I think about it I still feel a little butterfly in my chest. Thanks, theatre.

And here I am, on a bus scattered with dozing variety acts, watching the pine trees and flat yellow fields slide past as the drizzle draws its own roadways on my window. Signs for almost impossibly correct places zip by – Pelican Creek. Zip. Green view. Zip. Ridge Valley. Zip. Next stop, Grande Prairie, for another week of shows to a whole new town full of people. Lets go. Zip.

 

Aaaand just while I have your attention...

Tickets are selling fast.

They're going to be lovely, special, one-off shows.

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A Festival Of Fools

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The last time I performed at the Festival Of Fools in Belfast was in 2007. Back, then, by popular demand.

The magical thing about street performing, as I've mentioned before, is the way it unifies people. Nobody buys a ticket to see a street show ahead of time. It doesn't rely on booking celebrities, or how much your PR budget is. It's much simpler and more pure than that. For 45 minutes, there's someone doing something fun and exciting in the middle of town, and if you want to watch - no matter who you are, how much you're worth, what your opinions, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality or hat size is – you can. For a little while, everyone can be unified in watching an idiot like me do cool tricks and make dumb jokes. I love it for that, and of course, for a city like Belfast, with a history of pain built on the shaky foundations of clashing beliefs, something as simple as a busking festival that is for everyone, becomes all the more beautiful, profound and powerful. And fun.

The first morning's hotel buffet breakfast is spent catching up with old friends and making new ones. Fellow members of the secret society, whom I last spent time with in a selection of green rooms scattered across the world. Grizzled vets and keen young upstarts. Friendly ribbing and genuine hugs. Like an extended family coming together for a wedding, but with marginally less arguments and secret resentment.

We take a walk around the town to scout out the pitches. After a while, buskers develop the 6th sense of being able to walk down any high street and be able to see – matrix-like – where the pitch should go, where the people will walk, where they'll stop, any potential problems, street furniture that might be fun to play with etc.. As we wander around making mental notes, I realise that, perhaps, when I was here last, I didn't really appreciate how gorgeous this city is. Huge piles of handsome smooth stone from a dozen or so decades back sit dominating the corners of wide streets, spilling their weather-beaten sets of sharp steps out onto the pavement. The architectural equivalent of a stocky old geezer in a tweed suit who could still handle himself in a pub fight.

And of the less handsome buildings – every other one is tattooed with enormous, beautiful murals. Some subtly corporate sponsored, others perhaps less legal, but no less wonderful. Too many to catalogue. Look down a side street in the cathedral quarter and glimpse four-story high faces staring back at you. It's all rather splendid.

The first day of shows start. It was windy when I was here ten years ago, and its still bloody windy. And just like when I get booked to perform in a venue with a low ceiling, I love the challenge. The gusts blow my tablecloth almost off my table several times, and sends me vase of flowers clattering to the cobblestones so often I have to enlist a tiny little girl to pick it up and put it back whenever it happens. I also ask her to go get me a large latte with just a touch of cinnamon, and to get a receipt, but no dice. I love working in conditions like this, although I'd never let the audience know it. Finding yourself in a battle with the elements, shaking your fist at the sky in anger never fails to be funny. Problems, as they saying goes, are, to a clown, gifts. The art is in overcoming them just at the point when the audience think you never will.

Kids crowd me after each show, their flat and beautiful Belfast accents professing “You were really funny” with just a hint of considered surprise – because – to be fair – they've never heard of me, and TV has told them that if I was good, surely they would have. They thrust the festival guide into my hand, turned to my page, along with their mums pen, for me to sign. “Can you put that its your birthday?” one little ginger headed moppet requests. “How did you know it's my birthday?”, I ask. “My friend told me...”, and apparently everyone knows, and the guide-signing turns into an odd kind of reverse birthday card ritual. It's hilarious and lovely. More so, when, during my last show of that day, one of my fellow bukserados crashes my show and leads the audience in singing happy birthday to me. Dawwwww, you guys.

The thing about a three-day festival is that it's over to quick. The first day, you're finding your feet, warming up, getting the lay of the pitches and crowd. The second day, you're off and running, and then by the third day, it's all over and you're packing to go on to the next thing. But at least there's an end of festival party. Conversations with a wild-eyed and fantastic clown who talks of transmutation of energy and not being at all scared of death. Chats with variety legends about the difference between inspiration and theft, over the single malt that he bought you, drank from plastic hotel room tumblers. Overcaffeinated profundities and manifestos agreed upon. Anxieties shared. Love reaffirmed.

I'm at the point in my life now where I'm adjusted enough to know, and value, these times without becoming as doom-laden about the reality of them being finite, as I used to. I'm a lucky boy, and as I get older, I start to be better at enjoying the lucky work life I lead, rather than being obsessed with its temporary fragility. I'm learning, slowly, to “be here now”. And what a delightful now that was.

 

QUICK PLUG: MAT RICARDO'S LONDON VARIETIES SEASON THREE RETURNS IN SEPTEMBER FOR A RUN OF (STRICTLY) THREE MONTHLY SHOWS.

No guests will be announced ahead of time, but if you've been before, you know the kind of treats you're in for! They're going to be really fun, intimate, special shows, with surprises, and lots of new material from me, and they WILL sell out - so BOOK NOW BY CLICKING HERE!

My latest chortle column is about performing for people you don't like

This months column for Chortle has just gone live. it's about the puzzling phenomena of having to perform for people you don't like. Something, I'd guess, every performer has questioned themselves about at one time or another. Are we just being whingey creatives, and should we just shut up and do our job, or is there something more complicated going on here?

hope you enjoy it - if you do, Chortle lets you leave cmoments, so that'd be peachy :)

You can read it here

Maria's

I washed up at Covent Garden on a Wednesday, in the late 80's. It was, at the same time, the last resort of my illogical and feverish performing fantasies, and the absolute best possible thing I could have done.

My first show – the “try out”, as they used to call it – was at 11am, and somehow, probably due to the brute force that youthful enthusiasm fuels in someone who doesn't know any better, I got a small crowd and made £16. And that was it. The day before I was a directionless teenager, but now I was a street performer, and I always would be. I'd found the thing that I could do just well enough to know that I could get a lot better if I put in the hours. And months. And years.

The buskers would arrive early each morning and divvy up the shows, and then most of us would go to Maria's cafe, just around the corner in Henrietta street, for long carb-loaded breakfasts. For the next couple of decades, I always looked forward to those breakfasts, even when I wasn't looking forward to anything else about my work day. For two hours every morning, in that cosy, poky little unofficial buskers green room, I received my lessons. Oh sure, the field tests were carried out around the corner, on the cobblestones, in front of strangers, but the theory study was held in Maria's, with friends, over eggs, chips and beans.

I had arrived at Covent Garden a shy, fairly reclusive teenager, full of pretended piss and vinegar and with a skin tissue-thin, who still lived with his parents. But breakfast by breakfast, I learned about my new found job, and learned how to live my new found life.

Sat in clattery chairs around formica tables, surrounded by my peers, strangers and heroes, I learned how to make a joke, and – eventually - how to take one. I learned how to be in a group – that was new for me. I took criticism, ridicule, encouragement and praise. By the time I stopped being a regular I had, in every sense, grown up. Its no exaggeration to say that I gained much of my social and artistic education in that quarter mile of central London, and Maria's cafe, along with the Piazza itself, was at the centre of my world.

For years, it hadn't even been called Maria's. She sold up and moved away a while ago, and the new owners changed the name to “Masters Diner”, but for me and my gang from that era, it'll always be Maria's. Every greasy spoon needs a mama-san, and Maria was perfect. Welcoming you in from the cold with a cheery, and heavily Italian-accented “'Allo darlin', sit down sit down!”, knowing your usual, and asking when you're going to bring back that nice red-head girl you've been hanging out with.

These places are vanishing, and it feels like an authentic version of London is vanishing with them. All my favourite London cafes, slowly fading away, one by one, as rents increase to the oligarch-only level, and whole blocks get forcefully redeveloped out of their souls, thanks to some crooked backhander in another postcode. The beautiful, exciting, higgeldy-piggeldy texture of city streets gets painted over with a dull tessellation of franchise logos. The spectacular Piccadilly Cafe in Soho. Diana's Diner in Covent Garden. The Stockpot. The Court Cafe in SE1. And now Maria's. All gone.

What I'd give for one more long breakfast with the buskers in the toasty warm Maria's on a chilly morning. Two hours or so of teasing, bragging, laughing and bullshitting. Paddy and Adrian half-reading the papers and telling us facts and opinions. Rob losing his temper half for comedy and half genuinely. Dave and me arguing over the ingredients of the perfect fried breakfast. Shandy talking about retiring next year. Vinny zinging people, loudly, and effectively. Alex really not enjoying having to be up so early, even though he's been doing it longer than any of us. A secret society.

The people sat around those tables have gone their separate ways. Some still busk, some work elsewhere, some found other callings, and more than a couple are no longer with us. Many, though, I'll be friends with for life. Bonded through busking and breakfast. We sometimes meet to catch up, and occasionally find a cafe to go to.

I've known for a while that those days are inescapably behind me, but the closure of Maria's makes it all the more final. There's no going back, even if I could. That chapter is closed.

Maria's was, for me, where luck lived.

That was where I had the luck to find people who helped shape me, inspire me and remain as close to brothers and sisters as I've ever had.

That was where, between shows, I was lucky enough to get know the red-head girl, who would go on to become my wife.

That was where luck gave me a place I could go when I was scared of the path I'd chosen. A place I could get some toast and a coke, and form my ideas, and gather my nerve before venturing back out to try to gather another crowd and find the rent money in that huge, empty, scary piazza that became my friend.

Maria's was the best cafe in London. I owe it.

15 Months

I nearly didn't do it. Fact is, I'd got myself into such a stress-fuelled whirlpool of self-doubt about it that I had a big long chat with my agent about how I didn't want to do it. We all agreed that if I didn't want to, there's no reason why I should. So I wouldn't. Nice agent.

And then, as soon as we'd all agreed that I shouldn't do it, I felt a heavy cold lump in my guts, and a big loud boomy voice that seemed to be asking me what the hell I was thinking. Of course I had to do it. Oh sure, there are plenty of reasons why not – all the same reasons why you might not do anything – it's going to fail, it might not be as good as things you've done in the past, everyone will think you're rubbish, what's the point in trying? – but there was one big, loud, neon-lit, flashing-in-the-night-sky counterpoint that I couldn't ignore. I'm a maker. When faced with a choice between making something new, and not – you should always make. The success of something shouldn't matter – in the same way that a samurai never thinks about the consequences of a sword thrust – just about the perfection of the form. "Make something for the sake of making something because making things is what you do, and you're damn lucky to be able to, so shut up and do it", was basically my internal monologue.

So, right now I have a notebook with some ideas in. I have a couple of half-learned tricks, and ideas for a couple more. And most of all I have an idea for the show, that I think is quite fun, and that people might enjoy.

And I have about a year and half until I walk out on stage to do it.

I know what you're thinking – a year and a half seems like ample time to write a new show. And yeah, if all that was involved was writing, then you'd be correctamundo, but I'm a juggler, which means that half the show will involve performing new tricks. These tricks will have to work first time, and every time. That doesn't come easy, or quickly. So I'm looking at a strict schedule of writing, practice, prop-sourcing or making, and a bunch of other slightly more secret things, that will stretch over the next year and change. It's a big ol' undertaking, and as I start the preparations for the journey ahead, my emotional state flits between little jitters of nervous fear, and - particularly when a shiny new idea has just made a safe landing in my head - little satisfied giggles, as I imagine how an audience might like it.

The idea for the show I have at the moment might end up being nothing at all like the thing that gets performed next year. The rehearsal and practice process is there to warm the ideas through and make them soft and malleable, so their shape can be changed, as the show itself starts to take on its final form. It's scary and interesting and scary and fun and hard work and did I mention scary?

But I wouldn't have it any other way. My gut told me, as soon as I'd decided not to do a new show, that I'd made the wrong choice. So here I am – I have notebooks, sketches, a laptop, a slowly growing box of new props, and a long road ahead of me. Let's get to work.

Mat Ricardo's London Varieties Season Three! We're back!

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Yes. A couple of years after the last season of my hit London variety show, I couldn't keep away - so we're back for another season! Those of you that came to any of the past shows know what special nights they are - full of thrills, skills, spectacle and silliness - one time only moments, surprise guests and unexpected crazy stuff!

Every show is different, and every show is different from anything you've ever seen.

And if you haven't been before - well, take a look at the video below to get a flavour of what we do...

 

All your favourite things will be back - interviews, a new twist on the torture that is "Make Mat learn a new trick every month", and of course, some of the best variety artists on the planet. This time around we're keeping all the guests secret - but if you've been before, you know the kind of people who turn up - all I'll say at this point is BOOK NOW, either by clicking here, or calling the ticketline on 02077342222

A tenner will get you an hour of variety and comedy on a Saturday night.

Fun times guaranDAMNteed.

Trump Dollar

My latest column for Chortle is about how I got this in my hat at a street performing festival, and what it might mean. You can read it here

Hope you like it, and if you do, sharing is caring! ;)

New home

Hello!

So..this is the new home of my blog. The old one will stay up at its old location, here, but all new posts will be here, so update your bookmarks accordingly!

Hooray, and such.