I’m a comedian, a writer, a host, I make a pretty serviceable cacio e pepe, and I’ll take anyone on at Galaga – I am multitudes, is my point – but mostly I’m a variety performer. I’ve written in the past about my disappointment that my artform, the genre that is the most tailor-made to be able to work for audiences of all types, has often, lately, been for adults only. My training as a street entertainer taught me how to appeal to people of all ages, because without that skill, you’ll be hard-pressed to succeed. Entertain the kids but bore the parents and you’re turning off those with the money, do the opposite and there’s only so long an adult will endure a kid tugging on their sleeve to go somewhere else. But the recent revival in variety came from the upswing in cabaret and burlesque, so it mostly got saddled with the same “illicit late night thrills” aesthetic. That’s all well and good, but, wait, no it isn’t.
Variety is for everyone – that’s the whole point. A mixed bill where every member of the family can leave the venue with a different favourite act. It’s also a smart business plan, which makes it all the more surprising that good quality family-centric variety and cabaret shows are very rarely a thing. So I made them a thing again.
Last year, in association with the lovely people at Comedy Club 4 Kids, I curated and hosted a couple of test shows of this very idea. I also did a few similar shows in various other venues around the country. The shows were great, I mean, really great. So this year we’re doing more.
And here’s the point – despite the name, these aren’t kids shows. None of the acts I’ve booked would call themselves children’s performers. Instead, they’re simply some of the best circus and variety acts in the world – because if you’re really good, you can play to anyone. That’s where this artform can truly succeed – sometimes a comedian doing a kids show will shoot some gags at the kids and the occasional one just for the parents – but that’s not necessary with circus, every part of every act is for everyone. Adults and kids all sharing the same moments at the same time. That’s what we’re here for.
I’ve worked hard to make sure that, across the season of three shows we’re doing at London’s Underbelly Festival speigeltent there’s a total gender balance in the acts on the shows. As many women as men. I remember clearly being a tiny child in a park in North London and seeing the magician Peter Pinner do a show there. Funded by the local council, on a little stage on the grass, on a hot 1970’s Summers day. The tiny me giggled as his magic wand melted when he gave it to a volunteer. I can see it in my mind right now. I must have been, maybe 7? I’ve never forgotten it. I want the kids in my audiences to have those same moments, and that’s easier to do if the people on stage look similar to the people in the audience. It’s far from perfect – I’m still struggling to find people of colour to fit into these shows (and if that’s you, go to the contact page of this website and get in touch!) – but it’s one of those things I always try to keep in mind.
I think there’s something special about this kind of show. I think it slyly teaches kids some lessons. If you’ve just seen someone on stage pull a live dove out of a volunteers pocket, you can’t help but think that things, in life, might not always be as they seem. If you’ve just seen a woman lift up two of the biggest men she could find in the audience and spin them around, well, maybe it might teach you that seemingly superhuman things are achievable if you put your mind to it. That’s what my artform teaches me, still.
We just did the first show of our 2019 season last week. I was nervous about ticket sales. We did ok last year, but this year would be the test. Would we start to build an audience? Can this idea develop a following and work? Well, turns out we were pretty much full.
So, there I was, pacing around the back edge of the audience in the minutes before the show was going to start. Smiling to myself in the way you would, if you were about to host a show full of your friends to a packed house, in a beautiful speigeltent just a few feet away from where you used to do street shows 15 years ago. Just by chance I spotted that I was being gawped at by a tiny little girl in the audience. I knew the quizzical expression she was wearing. She thought she might have spotted someone who’s in the show, but she wasn’t sure. I grinned at her and did a little conspiratorial wink. Immediately she jumped into the air on the spot, her mouth wide open and her face popping with excitement. And I remembered what it was like to be where she was, and thought about all the things she was about to see, and I couldn’t have had a bad show if I’d tried.
If you’re in London, we have two more shows, with a different line-up each time, on Sat 18th of May, and on Sun 8th June, both at 1.15pm. Click here for more info and to book your tickets.
I’m also doing a family variety show at the Chester Storyhouse theatre on Sat 29th June at 4pm, click here to get tickets to that one. And if you’d rather have a little late night grown-up cabaret, later that same night, at the same venue, I’m hosting an amazing cabaret show for adults only - click here for info and booking for that.
And scroll down for a little taster of what you missed at the last variety Club 4 Kids show!