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.
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.
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.
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.
Dropped jaws guaranteed.