This is a review of Mat Ricardo's London Varieties, which happen monthly. All the details you need are here.
Podcast of Mat's superb ToMax Talk up soon.
Mat Ricardo is an artist. The Bethnal Green Working Men's Club is hard to find. You need to go.
I have just returned from Mat Ricardo's monthly London Varieties completely exhilirated - so much so, that on the way out I bought a ticket for the next show on Thursday 10th May. The room is higgledy-piggledy and worn: behind the stage is a big, pink, heart-shaped frame adorned with arcade bulbs, every other one blown. It is what you expect from a working men's club, complete with lurid red carpet, smelling, as Steve Furst's character Lenny Beige observed, 'very much like the working man'. A perfect backdrop for the unexpected.
Of course, variety's in the name. But I didn't expect such interesting variety of tone. Mat Ricardo the gentleman juggler presided, guiding the show from swagger to irony, to earnesty. 'When you go to a cabaret and it's all too polished,' observed Dusty Limits at ToMax talks the previous evening, 'you walk away feeling cheated.' No danger of that here, despite the exceptional quality of the acts (the brilliant mime artist The Boy With Tape On His Face and Lenny Beige 'the King of Light Entertainment' to name but two).
One sequence captured this spirit of surprise. Mat had prepared a potted lecture about one of his Hollywood heroes, Gene Kelly. We learnt how Kelly had been sent to dance school as a young boy, found it too girly and quit. Aged 16, Kelly realised that dancing might be a good way to pick up girls. “So he went back on his own terms. Always the best way to do things.” We were treated to a couple of memoirs and a comparison with Fred Astaire. “Fred floated; Gene worked close to the ground.” The mini-lecture concluded with a video of Kelly's Summer Stock tap dance (the one with the creaking floorboard and rustling newspaper).
It was a serious moment: the audience was asked to recollect and admire a great and influential dancer - as it became clear when Ricardo produced his own bit of tap. He was soon joined by two rather prettier, professional tap-dancers.
Our compere again: “Those of you that know me will be aware I'm often in shows with burlesque performers. And when you've been on the circuit for a while, you realise that pretty much everyone you meet can do a bit of tap.” And - hey presto! - ten burlesque dancers from the circuit for a giggly, minute-long tap routine. Incongruous, brilliant - an education.
The evening has another original feature: Ricardo interviews one of the main acts. This time, it was the fictional entertainer and producer Lenny Beige, who had the room in the palm of his hand with his stand-up: 'my father was so dull he couldn't entertain a doubt' he rambled, 'we were so poor we couldn't even pay attention'.
Every month, Ricardo sets himself a challenge to attempt at the following show. For the show in hand, he had promised to learn a plate-juggling routine – a skill entirely new to him. A film of the last month's training showed Ricardo backstage at various theatres tirelessly flipping plastic plates (to fellow performers' amusement and irritation alike). So when the drums rolled and Mat actually performed the plate routine, we knew better how impressive it was, how much skill and practice it required. For the next show he has promised to learn a juggling routine involving magic.
In general, the show cast an eye on craft and paid tribute to what came before. It was a demonstration of Dusty Limits' point that the intimacy and responsiveness of Cabaret allow the performers to revel in their identity as performers. Here it was less ironic and meta – more earnest and educational.
At ToMax talks, Mat explained how important it is to him to be part of a tradition:
“When you're middle aged, you start to think about...death! You start to think about what you leave behind you. If you're a song-writer you leave songs. If you're a director you leave films which your fans can watch, and quote, and love...If you're a variety performer, if you're a speciality act, if you're a vaudeville shmuck like me, what do you leave? You leave that....[gets right thumb stuck in jacket button hole...and then left thumb trying to remove it]...Shtick. That's what you leave, you leave shtick - bits of business, routines, tricks, gags that have been passed down from performer to performer, generation to generation, like the fragile heirlooms they are, passed down by shmucks doing them for a cheap laugh, like I just did.
“Some of the things I do in my act have been through the hands of at least a dozen other jugglers, stretching back generations and generations. It's my job to find them, give them a polish, take care of them, maybe put a twist on 'em, and pass them down to the next person. It's a beautiful thing to be part of.”
Ricardo began, as do most such performers, on the street: “Street performing is the single
most honest, pure and beautiful form of theatre you will ever see.” Astonishingly, for ten years, people paid him enough to live. But how could he take his art to the next level? Perform for local councils? At Butlins, Pontins? Comedy clubs? (“where the stand-ups see you as a second class citizen, because you commit the cardinal sin of being as funny as they are and doing something else at the same time.”) Cruise ships...? (“which are great, if your idea of fun is being trapped in the middle of the ocean, in a prison made of glass and marble, with three and a half thousand cunts.”) Ricardo tried them all, and a decade later was beginning to lose hope. “I'd tried to force myself into a dozen different shaped boxes, but didn't fit into any of them.”
Then, one day, he got booked for something different. “It's in a dark, crowded room in Soho. And it's full of singers and burlesque performers and clowns and acrobats - and me. And the audience are wonderful. And they listen. And they laugh and they clap, and they even gasp. And it is the perfect place to work. Instead of forcing myself into someone else's box I'd found the tin where all the broken biscuits live.”
Perhaps that explains the ebullience of Mat Ricardo's London Varieties: there's a sense that, at last, Mat's doing it the best way: on his own terms.