I have just arrived in a slightly rainy hannover, Germany where I am to perform five nights a week for three weeks as part of the "Kleines Fest in der Grossen Garten" - "the little festival in the big garden". It's a nice gig. 30 of the finest variety companies in the World each have a little stage in a beautiful ornamental garden, and every night 3000 people come and eat, drink and watch the shows before the night is closed with big-ass fireworks. The tickets sell out before the first night, and this year - according to Harald, the organiser - the demand for tickets was more than double the supply. Makes you feel wanted.
Harald is great. A tall, grey haired bespectacled Hannovian who for most of the year is a big wheel in the local council, but for one month a year, he dons his top hat and runs the festival which he clearly loves very much. Harald's top hat is an important tradition here. At the big meeting the day before the first performance he carefully takes it out of it's big round hatbox, opens it and puts it on and we all cheer. Then at the big party on the last night, he takes it off, collapses it down and puts it away until next year and we all go "Ahhhhh". "For the duration of the festival", he says, "You are all in the hat".
There are lots of people that I know and like here, which makes it all the more pleasant. Henry and Gaby - he's from New York and sounds very much like a slightly caffeinated Woody Allen, and she's Swiss and dances like a lunatic. They play music and juggle and do acrobatics and are very silly. They also have a three year old daughter called Viviana who everybody who ever meets falls in love with, and a newborn son, Dominic. The first thing Gaby said when we met after not seeing each other for a year was that I looked younger and slimmer, which re-endeared me to her immediately.
Scott and Muriel are here, another pan-global couple. He's American and she's Dutch. They do one of the best and funniest magic acts I have ever seen. Now that I think of it, Muriel is kinda nuts too. It seems to be a running theme - variety acts comprising a clean-cut American man and a nutjob silly European woman. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Who else is here? Daniel, a mime artist so good that he can sneeze and make it look as if his head has fallen off. Seriously. Oh, and Jigalov, a Russian clown who scares me deeply.
The first day of the festival it rained. I spent most of the afternoon cyling around Hannover trying to find a rainproof jacket and hat that wasn't ugly but was cheap. When I found one, I queued up for ages only to be told that no shops in Hanover take visa. Annoying. Then I thought I'd go to Otto's, the nice restaurant we found last year, for pre-show food, and when I got there I waited ages to be served and then was told that all the things I wanted had run out. Getting grumpy now, and hungy. I ended up at a little kebab shop where the other customers comprised of a young mum and toddler playing and a rain-soaked homeless man sitting in the corner being supplied with free food as he nursed his beer. The woman behind the counter spoke no english but understood me pointing to pictures of pizzas, chips and coca-cola. Although she did ask what size pizza I wanted by gesturing to her (large) breasts, and then the (smaller) breasts of her co-worker. Seemed to work. I ate my food watching the rain outside as they played spanish pop music and the toddler enjoyed sneaking around me giggling, and my mood was cured.
It was still raining when I got to the gardens. The rule is that if it rains heavily enough that shows can't happen, then the night gets cancelled, but if it gets cancelled before 8.30pm then Harald has to refund all the ticket money, so what invariably happens is that however heavy the rain, the announcement isn't made before 8.31pm. Harald isn't stupid. We were halfway through our second show when the announcement to cancel came over the tannoy. The poor audience looked so unhappy and dejected to be told that they had to go home. We mentioned that of course we'd finish the show we had started, and they went nuts. From that point on they loved us like a pair of lost sons.
On the second night I let people talk me into staying up at the hotel bar and drinking. I don't really drink much. In fact - thanks to epilepsy - I went pretty much without a drink for about 15 years. Now however, the epilepsy has gone and been replaced with a keen interest in Jack Daniels. The practical upshot of this is that I get drunk really, really easily. I am a cheap date.
We all sat around a table in the warm comfy bar of our hotel and let Patrick, the barman, furnish us all with booze. As we chatted, more and more performers joined us, until at one point I sat back and looked around the bar. There's Henry playing the bar piano and being joined by some Spanish guitarists, as some ballet dancers groove with each other. There's Jackie, who seems to spend the whole gig wandering around in character and bullying booze out of people, talking to Dave, my comedy partner. There's the guy who leads a life-size baby elephant around the park. There's one of the women who becomes such a convincing giraffe that you wouldn't know it wasn't real if you weren't looking really closely. There's Muriel, who I last saw a few hours ago on stage literally tied in knots, before dancing around in a banana suit. There's Gaby, eating her post show chocolate pudding snack, which is, she assures us, "The reason we come to Germany".
We went to see the current show at the GOP variety theatre - the venue at which we will make our (hopefully) triumphant return to Hannover in September. It was based around a very well known clown, with quite the reputation. Scott told us a story about him. He was working in a circus and everyone was getting on well except for the escapologist, who seemed to think of himself as god's gift to circus. As if that wasn't bad enough, he also thought of himself as quite the hilarious prankster. Now, in circus, as with most families of performers, prank playing is rife - a creative and silly way to fill the boredom of a long season and keep everyone laughing. I myself have been involved in various episodes, often involving super glue and shoes, whereas Dave prefers the art of the cable-tie, but that's another story. Anyway, if there is one golden rule to playing jokes on each other backstage it is this: Don't mess with the act. Ever.
The escapologist was either unaware of this rule or decided to disobey it. When the pranks he played on the clown fell flat repeatedly, he started messing with the act. Sprinkling powder on the table that the clown did acrobatics on. Stupid and dangerous. The clown decided that revenge needed to be taken.
The escapologist's finale trick was a milk-can escape. In this trick, you are bound, placed inside a milk churn filled with water, the lid of which is padlocked down. He must, obviously, escape from the can.
The clown filled the can with eels.
Now, there's a point in all joke-battles, where you have to admit defeat. You have to suck it up and say "Ok, you glorious bastard, that was funny. You win". This, one would think, would be the perfect time for the escapologist to do this. But he didn't. He carried on playing stupid thoughtless jokes that put people at risk and - worse - made nobody laugh except him.
So the next week, the clown filled the milk can with blue permanent India ink. In went the escapologist, the clock ticked down, the music played, and out he leapt triumphantly. Completely blue from head to foot. For the next two weeks.
Never mess with the act. And never, ever, mess with a clown.
So now the festival is over. It went very well. Last night we had the big party where much food and champagne was consumed. Harald, the director, did his traditional long speech and opened with a gag he admitted was stolen from our act. That has to be a good sign. He thanked us all, gave out some roses and then closed up his top hat and put it back in it's hat box for another year. "Ahhh", we all said. They had asked me and my double act partner, Dave, to write and perform something funny to lead into a presentation of gifts for all the festival staff, and we did, and it was a hit. Yay us. Then we ate and drank and chatted into the early hours, performers children sitting on my lap and giggling, strangers telling me I was funny and kissing my head, old friends showing up and hanging out, and new acquaintances quickly becoming better friends. And I sat in the middle of it all, chatting to Dave as I have done for more than twenty years, and agreeing that there were certainly worse ways to make a living.
In the morning we all gather again in the big dining room for one last long lazy breakfast. Every so often someone will come around and hug everyone and then waved goodbye at the door and leave, until there's just a handful of us left. It's sad, but beautiful, this big extended family of people who see each other maybe once or twice a year at a variety venue of street theatre festival. Close, meaningful relationships that lack only the luxury of regular face time. We're all here for three weeks, then we all shoot off in different directions either to home, wherever that is, or to the next gig, wherever that is.
I have a pizza with Henry & Gaby at lunch and during the meal Vivi, their 3 year old daughter, is acting up a little, doing handstands on the sofa and asking to try everyone's food. She's probably over excited, tired, senses that today is a long dull travel day, and will miss the people who are such fun to be with. The truth is that I'm very aware that all those things apply to me too. These friendships mean an awful lot to me - they'd mean less, perhaps, if we were together all the time. The rarity is part of the joy.
We make plans to try to get booked at a couple of the same festivals, and then they're leaving, Gaby turning as she walks out the door and yelling "Happy trails" with a grin.
And here I sit, in the hotel lobby, now so quiet where for the last three weeks it was full of noisy messy performers. The staff are probably glad it's over, but I also think they secretly like their dull businessman's hotel being turned into a bit of a circus for three weeks a year. The taxi will be here soon, and then to the airport, and then back home. And then the sadness of leaving my friends has gone, replaced with the feeling of comfort and warmth that goes with returning to my wife and my house and my cat.
Until the next gig.