I'd been booked to do a short spot as part of a new night. Bit of a low ceiling, and not the biggest of stages, I'd been told, so it was in my interest to get there early to scope the place out. I had not been misinformed.
I had about a foot and a half above my head to play with, which I actually kinda like. It looks like more of a problem than it is, and, as someone well-versed in theatrical cliché once said – a problem, to a clown, is a gift. About half of the basement palaces of fun that I regularly work have similar height issues, and I always figure it benefits me. I stride on stage, announce that I'm a juggler, look disdainfully upwards, and there's my first laugh. The audience realise that I could be in trouble, and whatever happens, they'll enjoy it, and we're away.
But there were added problems tonight. The stage was indeed tiny, and was entirely taken up with a full band. There was literally about a foot and a half square of space for the singer to stand in, and nothing else. So, I'd be performing on the floor in front of the stage. Not ideal, but needs must.
As the place started filling up, my stomach started to knot. If the venue was shaped like a bent arm, then the stage was located at the elbow. Two thirds of the room in front, but about a third, including the bar, behind and to one side. I sat in the corner and watched how the room was working, the same way I used to watch how people would pass by a busking pitch. Find the flow. Find the pockets where people lose interest. Find the problem areas.
This place was all problem area. It's bad enough trying to do comedy when there's a working bar in the room, but having one close by, and behind me meant that the people there wouldn't feel part of the show, and therefore wouldn't mind making a little noise. And as for the audience that stretched out in front of me, well, the back half were tucked behind the sound booth, and that combined with me working on the floor meant that they wouldn't be able to see me, so they'd lose interest and start talking too. Ok, I thought, so I'm working to the small bunch of tables right in front of me. Not ideal, but still totally doable.
The material I had brought with me was the kind of stuff I often do in small clubs and comedy venues – basically a combination of stand-up and tricks. Tried and tested. But slowly it dawned on me as I saw the other acts, that every one else on the bill was a singer. I was the only non-musical act. Might have been smarter to have bought my more circusy stuff, that gets performed to music. Oh wait, not enough ceiling height for that. Stuck with this. Hm.
But it's ok. I get to open with one of my favourite gags. It never fails, and always gets the audience on side right away. It's fine, as long as I've got the tables right in front of me onside, then we'll have fun.
I'm waiting by the bar now, and the show has started. The first music act is done, and the second is halfway through. People are talking through the songs a little. There's a particularly oafish fat drunk in a cheap grey suit at the bar, and he's got no problem shouting at the performer who dares to keep singing over his criticisms of her waistline. My heart sinks further and my eyes roll harder. I'm up next. Focus on the audience closest. Make them your friends by showing them your problems, then make 'em laugh by overcoming them. Textbook. Done it a million times in situations way worse than this. Here we go. I look behind me and see that the fat loud guy has vanished from the bar. Ok. Good.
There's my intro, here I come. Something's different. The lights have changed from the rehearsal. All I can see is one white, dazzling, spotlight, rather than the warm wash we had planned. No problem. Let's hit that opening gag. My microphone is cutting out, and when it does work, it's too loud. I sell my opening gag like a pro. Small laugh. People are talking.
I get stuck into the act, trying to give it some pace and energy, but every other gag I throw misses, and so do a couple of the tricks. There's a loud laugh from the front table – clearly at me, rather than with me. I squint through the spotlight to see that the fat guy from the bar has now taken his seat. Front row centre, trashed and with his sights set on me.
The familiar cold, heavy feeling in my gut. Knowing how the next 10 minutes of my life are going to pan out. Most of the tables are enjoying it, but the ingredients have already formed the perfect storm. Less than half the venue can see me. Waitresses are pushing past me delivering drinks. My microphone is still cutting out, and those gaps in the audio are replaced by the fat guy laughing the word “Twat” at me as loudly as he can. And I think that the punchyness I'm trying to give to the act is coming across as desperation. I feel the sweat run down my neck. Let's just make it to the end and not let it get any worse, I think to myself. And I do. Sprint to the finish. Hit the final couple of tricks and they get decent responses. By that time, I think, people had started to realise that the fat guy was an asshole, and that his douchbaggery was far greater than my failure to set the room alight. But still.
I get off and slope backstage like Charlie Brown on a bad day. The other acts tell me how great it was, but they do it with that wide-eyed “please take what I'm saying at face value, it's fine, everything is fine” expression that we both know what's going on. The compère of the show – someone I completely adore, am a fan of, and therefore, of course, want to impress, gives me my pay in an envelope with one hand and squeezes my shoulder with the other, and I leave the scene of the crime.
And it's fine.
I had a bunch of gigs this month, and every single one of the others were great. Some were stormers. For every single minute of stage time I had last month, I felt about as relaxed and happy as I ever feel. Cliche (and disfunctional) though it is, I rarely feel as in the moment and blissful anywhere else as I do when I'm on stage. So, then, I think it's good to be reminded of how valuable and special that is once in a while.
Once a year, let's say. To die on your ass, once a year, (ideally in front of someone you admire) is healthy. Keeps you on your toes. Every fighter needs to get rocked by a overhand right every so often, just to remind him to keep his hands up. Back in the day, after a gig like that, you would have found me sobbing into a clamshell of chips on a train platform (As happened in the late 80's after a gig at the bearcat club that ended a couple of minutes after it began, with members of the audience throwing my own props at me..), but these days, I know a little better. It still hurts, sure, but I'm able to analyse what was within my control, what wasn't. What I can improve on, and what I can't.
And these days there are enough amazing gigs to more than balance it out.
Talking of which...
Yes! The 2013 season of Mat Ricardo'sLondon Varieties kicked off last week at the brilliant Leicester Square Theatre. We had a packed bill of variety performers from all over the UK, and I got to interview the lovely Omid Djalili. It's been a stressful old time, putting these shows together, but walking out on stage on that first night was – as I knew it would be – like slipping into a warm bath.
As I said, I often feel my most relaxed and happy on stage, and I can pinpoint the moment in last weeks show where I felt happiest. I had invited my old friend Andre Vincent on stage to trade a few hat tricks. We had planned to attempt a five-hat, two person move. Not spectacularly difficult, but for two men in their 40's who hadn't done it for years... well, it took a few attempts, a few failures and there was a moment when, after yet another calamitous fail, we were both just bent over double laughing at ourselves, as the audience did the same. Blissful.
Next month - March 28th - we have a truly incredible bill: I'll be interviewing Al Murray, and we'll be getting performances from the Boy With Tape On His Face, Award-winning magician Pete Wardell, the hilarious Elliot Mason, and of course a brand new trick from yours truly!
Tickets are flying for this, so click here and book now!