Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Warm bath

After the ridiculous cocktail of anxiety and happiness that framed my run of "Showman" at The Purcell Room (And thank you so much for coming, if you did), it's was an easy pleasure to slide back into a weekend of doing some spots at a few London cabaret shows. Short sets are still my bread and butter, but you never know what you're going to get - they can be lovely and welcoming as a warm bath, or lary and unpredictable like a Jackie Chan fight scene. Luckily for me, I was at the Cafe Royal for Salon Des Artistes, and Kettners for Ruby Deshabille's High Societease - both completely gorgeous, classy and uncomplicatedly pleasurable shows.

They both share similar vibes, too. Sometimes cabaret shows try, I think possibly a little too hard, to be edgy or dangerous or sexy, and often end up coming off like a French teenager on a day trip to London pretending to smoke a fake cigarette to look cool (An image that every other ex Covent Garden street performer will instantly recognise). Salon and Societease don't bother with that, instead just presenting assured, quality, grown-up bills of intimate high class cabaret. And by doing that, they create the gently evocative atmosphere of illicit fun that gives this artform its character. A pleasure for those both sides of the curtain.

I threw my camera into my prop case just before I left the house, so here's a few of the things it saw..

I now have a signature cocktail! My work here is done.

Abi Collins slays her fellow performers

...and that's how you end a show.

Just before I sign off, it behooves me to mention that the first set of tour dates for "Showman" have now been announced. If you're not a Londoner, then maybe there's somewhere near you here, and if not, keep your eye on my twitter, as there are more dates added all the time. Oh, and if you're a Londoner who missed out on the Southbank Centre shows, never fear, plans are brewing for something fun in London this Summer.

"SHOWMAN" 2015 Tour dates

    30th March - Farnham Maltings, Surrey
    1st April - Arlington Arts Centre, Newbury
    2nd April - Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington
    7th April - Devonport Guildhall, Devonport
    8th April - Devonport Guildhall, Devonport
    10th April - Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Halifax
    11th April - Swayfield Village Hall
    8th May - Brighton Spiegeltent
    16th May - Birmingham Cabaret Festival, Old Joint Stock Theatre
    13th June - Jesterval festival, Newcastle
    3rd December - Overpelt, Belgium
    4th December - Geel, Belgium

More info than you could possibly need, at my newly repainted website.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Life and death and Jojo's

Things die and other things are born and stuff evolves and that's the way of things. And, to be honest, usually I'm one of those people who kind shrugs and takes the stance that if one is going to like new things, then sometimes old things are going to disappear because that's just how life is. But sometimes there's a little more at play that natural evolution, and when it comes to city planning, there almost always is a lot more at play, and it's far from natural. I was part of the movement that successfully saved Gabys Diner from being swept aside to make way for a chain restaurant, but that kind of protest rarely succeeds. My treasured New Piccadilly Cafe is no more, victim of redevelopment, and now, a similar fate has befallen the wonderful Madame Jojos.

Much has been written about how a violent incident involving doorstaff was what closed it down, which is technically true, but you don't have to listen to hard to pick up the whispers of possible dodginess. Well, I've never been much for whispering, so I'll say it out loud. It stinks. Some of the key door staff in the incident didn't even work for Jojo's, they came from neighboring businesses. Jojo's were told to change the management and take on a whole new, council approved, door team - which they did. And yet, even after complying with all demands, their license was still revoked, swiftly and without debate. Put this together with the fact that public records clearly show a plan to demolish Jojo's and replace it with new, lucrative retail units that was drawn up long before the incident ever happened, and it doesn't take Woodward and Bernstein to figure out that this whole affair looks exactly as crooked and cynical as you'd expect. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's just my cynical paranoid mind at work. Or maybe a Tory council and real estate developers just ain't the most ethical of motherfuckers.

Either way, it's done. Nail hit. Coffin door secured a little more firmly.

A spokesbot from Westminister council is quoted thus: “Westminster is rightly proud that Soho is now a safer area for people to live, work and play. It is not something we will apologise for.”. Well, I don't doubt their reticence to apologise for anything, at all, ever, but I think this says, perhaps, more than was intended. Here's the thing, cities should have areas that are a little..rough. It's part of the fabric of a city. There should be places that aren't ideal for kids. There should be a couple of streets that are mainly for grown ups - that offer grownup pleasures, grownup thrills, and sometimes grownup dangers. It's cultural texture. If you make a whole city family friendly, then you become like a parent who smears anti-bacterial gel all over their kid, every time they touch anything that fell on the floor. You think you're doing the right thing, but as soon as that kid catches a cold, they're going to drop dead. Allow the exaggeration, to make my point, won't you?

On top of that, I adore the fantasy that chain stores and high end dining = safer. Like nobody's ever been mugged outside a Wahaca, that shit only happens near McDonalds. Such low-grade misdirection that the council hopes will take our attention away from the gorgeous new linings of their pockets.

Oh well. It's tragic, and boring, and shite, but the shows will go on, have no fear about that. Just like always, the travelling circus will just find a new place in which to pitch its tent. Crowds will follow, and the shows will thrive. We're flexible, like Bruce Lee's water, and that makes us strong.

For me, I played Jojo's pretty regularly, usually as part of the excellent Magic Night, but also, over the years, with the lovely Folly Mixtures, or in Bete Noire, or with the mighty Chutzpah and Hagen, and I never had a bad gig there. I'd bounce on stage, get my first laugh by noticing the low ceiling, and we'd be off and running. It was such a strange shape room, you could play the people in the pit right by the stage off against the folks way back by the bar, to the amusement of the people sitting down in between. The crowds were always lovely, but just on the cusp of considering the possibility of being lary, which meant you couldn't sleepwalk through your set, you had to deliver. I do love that in a venue. I knew I'd done good if I could stare through my own reflection in Andy's sound booth to see him cackling away. That was a nice feeling.


We had a..well..there were differing labels attached to it..was it a protest? A procession? A vigil? A funeral? Whatever it was, it was good, and a couple of hundred retro and reprobates, dressed in their finest, paraded a coffin through soho. I figured many passers by might have thought it was a genuine funeral of a soho character, at least until the coffin was upended and dumped in Jojo's doorway, where, hilariously, the lone security guard inside started freaking out that he might be trapped inside. Lols were had.

Then there was drinking and chips and chatting in a pub nearby and the sense of family that often exists in this little community was felt. And I didn't get a chance to tell Abigail O'Neil what a great job she'd done organising it all, so I'm doing it now.

And then, as if to re-enforce the fact that the show must, indeed, go on, I jumped on the tube and got myself over to Acton to perform at The Aeronaut. Packed house, cool acts, lovely (and quite new) venue, and snakes! One venue dies, another thrives. So there is, at least, that.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Before your very eyes

Back in the day, it used to be different.

Back in the day, conventional wisdom said that you'd toil for years, decades even, on the road. Leaving flopsweat footprints on creaky stages across the country, setting up that nightly payment of your dues, making friends and enemies, finding and losing lovers and agents, as you criss-crossed the map doing your thing. Squinting through cheap spotlights at a fresh set of faces in the darkness every night, and, if you were good, if you were lucky, sending them back home as fans. Slowly, you changed minds, made strangers into believers, one half empty auditorium at a time, until you got the call. Then, with your pedigree proven and your suit pressed, you got a shot on telly.

Your colleagues would suck at their teeth at the news, knowing, as did you, that you were faced with a choice. Did you do your best stuff, the song that had almost become your catchphrase, the trick that people clapped you on the back and shook their head with disbelief at, and, by putting it in front of so many gogglebox-fixated eyeballs, render it useless for future live work? Or would you only give 'em your B-material – don't run the risk – save the good stuff for the crowds that had made you, and that would see you into another few years? Would you dance with the one that brought you, or do the old switcheroo?

But here's the thing: I'm pretty sure that conventional wisdom is wrong on this one.

Television is often cited as one of the main contributing factors to the death of music hall and variety, and I think it's pretty obvious what a crock this is. For a start, it's fairly well documented that greedy venue managers started to realise that they could book a couple of these new-fangled rock & roll bands into their hall, paying just for two acts, rather than a whole mixed bill of performers, and by doing so, attract a younger audience. Bands would work for less, because the more fans they could create, the more records they'd sell the next week. That was the killer heart punch to variety – the re-purposing of the stage as a place to promote another product, to a whole new market, the teenager.

But surely TV didn't do any good? Well, all I can really do is relate my own experience. I've done one of my signature tricks on some pretty high profile shows, and my live work is going better than ever - although there has been a discernible change in my audience reaction, and I think its very telling. A few years ago, before my reverse-tablecloth trick had infected your screens quite as extensively as it has done since, I'd pull the cloth, get the applause, and as I'd prepare to put the cloth back on, they'd be a nice feeling of happily confused expectation in the audience. They knew something was coming, but they had no ideas what. When it happened, it was a surprise. These days, in pretty much every crowd I work to – at least in this country – as I get ready to put the cloth back on, there is – and I promise you this is true – a completely tangible feeling from a section of the audience of “Oh shit, it's that guy” - they realise, in a split second, that I'm the guy a few of them have seen on TV do that trick, and then they realise that they're about to see it live, and they get excited.

And that's the key. I think, these days more than ever, when people see a million incredible things on youtube before lunch, that to see one of those things live – before your very eyes – has gained in value. I imagine those people telling their friends - “You know that guy we saw do that tablecloth thing on youtube? He was at the show last night! He did it right in front of me!”. I think that the more opportunities to see things on screens there are, the more prestige there is in seeing something right in front of your nose.

Screens didn't kill variety, but they are helping revive it.

Which is why I've been enjoying making some little bits of video to put up online. It's a fun, creative process, and people who enjoy the videos might well seek me out in a live show. And besides, we're supposed to be makers right? It's possible to make little movies with cheap equipment you can put in your pocket. Why would I not want to do that?

In only slightly unrelated news, I was told recently that a fairly well-known burlesque and cabaret producer thought the only thing I did was pull tablecloths. I'm currently touring my third hour-long one man show, which is full of bottles, hats, canes, electric carving knives, yoyos, bowling balls, and no I don't, so far, have a routine with a kitchen sink but it can only be a matter of time. I work pretty hard at creating new pieces and pushing the boundaries of my art form as much as I can, so I'd be a liar if I said it wasn't frustrating when someone who, frankly, should know better, writes me off as a one-tricky pony. Not that I'm not proud of that bit of business, you understand. So I guess that's another reason that I'm enjoying infecting the internet with little video calling cards – hopefully it'll remind people the breadth of what I do. Anyhoo: whinge over.

It's been a great month – did my last few 2014 tour dates in a beautiful spiegeltent at the Canterbury festival, and in some gorgeous venues around the Lake District. My mind is still happily boggled when I walk out on stage and find a room full of people who have chosen to spend their hard earned money on a ticket to my show. I couldn't be happier when that happens, and hopefully it'll happen a lot more next year: “Showman” comes to the Purcell Room in London's South Bank Centre in late January, (Which is INSANE) and plans are in place for some more tour dates in spring 2015. Can't bloody wait.

Between now and then, I'll be popping up at lots of burlesque and cabaret shows, supporting the brilliant Puppini Sisters at the Garrick Theatre in the West End, oh, and if you're in Germany, you'll be able to see me do my hat & cane routine as part of the Rire Sur La Ville comedy gala which will be broadcast on RTL sometime over Christmas. It was full of very famous Europeans, who I didn't know, so it felt weird, but the lighting was gorgeous, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it looks!

Monday, 22 September 2014

AFVS at the London Wonderground


The aforementioned AFVS standing, of course, for "Another Fucking Variety Show", the pirate ship of cabaret, captained by Lili La Scala, in which I have had a regular spot for the last couple of years in Edinburgh, and which has come to the London Wonderground for a couple of shows. Gang back together, and all that. It's always an amazing show, and one of my favourite backstages to be hanging out in. Especially meaningful to be performing in such a gorgeous venue, when, just a handful of years ago, I was doing street shows, right there on the South Bank, a few feet away.

Great though my iphone is, I felt like taking out the big boy camera for this one. Hope you like what it saw.

Vicky Butterfly

Lili La Scala

Lili and Reuben

Missa Blue


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Short fringe


See what I did there? Fringe. Like hair. No? Fine. Screw you.

Anyway, I brought "Showman" back to the Edinburgh fringe this month for a limited season of sixteen performances - which of course meant that within those two and a bit weeks, I ended up doing a total of fifty five shows, spots and other associated stage-based arsing arounds. Good times. Tiring, but good.

During a chat with the always delightful Hardeep Singh Kohli I heard myself saying that this year I finally felt that I wasn't knocking on the door trying to get into somewhere, but was on the inside, accepted. I'm aware of the slight level of self-involved bollocks that implies, but its the honest truth. This year, although the weather was bad, even for Scotland, and audiences were maybe a little down across the board, it felt a bit easier. The rave, five star reviews, helped. haha.

I certainly had a lot of fun doing my show, and hanging out with gangs of friends from the worlds of street performing, cabaret and comedy. Ahh, the precious nourishment to be gained from created families.

Best moments of the fringe for me: Hurting my knee, getting some painkillers, and then, while under the influence of said painkillers, buying a house. That's a special kind of thrill. Also: Watching Lili La Scala fall off her piano, headfirst into the lap of her pianist, and then just stay there. Cabaret pizza club, of course, and its young spinoff group, the Meltdown society (Deep fried mars bars for the win).

Here's a few things my iphone saw while I was there.


If you do like my photos, then I'm all over instagram, so maybe consider following me there?

 Aaaand the "Showman" tour rolls on - I'm out of the country for a few days, and then I'm bringing the show to the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal on Saturday 30th August. Spread the word and COME!