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Thursday, 14 July 2016

A solo performer in a cast and an only child in a family.

I first met Roses when she – and I'm using her own words here – stalked me for months, took me for coffee, told me that she wrote, directed and starred in some theatre shows, thrust a script into my hands, and told me she wanted to work with me. It was equal parts flattering and scary, like many of life's best moments.

I was doing a bunch of cruise ships shows at the time, and as they have a habit of sapping ones soul slightly, I was looking for something different to get stuck into. Something nourishing, challenging, fun, maybe. I took her script onto a plane to Miami, and by the time we'd reached cruising altitude I knew I wanted in.

That was seven years and two installments of her show ago, and last month I was happily roped into another episode of Roses' ongoing theatrical crazyness.

The Night Kitchen Cabaret isn't a cabaret show. Ok, well it sort of is. It's a play masquerading as a cabaret show masquerading as a play about a cabaret show that is really a play. Or something. I'll start again. It's a play about a woman called Ruby Kitchen. She runs a show from her East London home, which may or may not also be some kind of trans-dimensional tardis. Long story. She's surrounded by her family, friends and visitors from far away. Oh, and there's dance and circus and magic and puppetry and mime and music and monsters and and and...

What it mainly is, is virtually impossible to describe with any degree of clarity or accuracy. A multi-disciplinary tour-de-force that is exactly as concerned with slapstick and spectacle as it is with using delicate theatre to delve into some of the gentle, dark places that good art can be so good as illuminating.

I'm lucky. I had a couple of decades of living as a busker, hand to mouth, but these days I do alright. I get to bounce around the world doing my thing in interesting places. But I don't like to keep it too easy. I always want to be doing something new – doesn't matter if its a new gag, routine, venue, show – I always want to be concious, always want to be stretching myself a little, always developing and learning, because otherwise, what's the point? I'm also a solo turn. I function well on my own. Always have done. So spending a month in a rehearsal room (At RADA of all places) being a member of a cast full of way more talented people (or at least that's how my insecurities will always frame it, although holy crap, this cast was amazing), learning everything from heartfelt dialogue, to physical theatre choreography, to full scale Appalachian flatfoot dance numbers – well, that took me to a place where you couldn't see my comfort zone with military-grade binoculars.

I struggle to function as part of a cast. Habit, my inherent shyness, and probably a little fear-fuelled ego all combine to make me occasionally want to curl up a hide under a table. But over the course of rehearsals, we fuse together. Strangers become colleagues become friends, and finally melt into a single cast. Like an army unit – a collection of specialists who, together, make one thing happen. By the time we finally got to walk out onto our beautiful set, we had become the family we were portraying.

I always tell people that one of the things I love about my job is that with my skillset and experience, I can work pretty much anywhere. And sure, on the surface, that sounds like the kind of thing you tell an agent who isn't sure if you're right for a gig, and indeed it is, but it's also really true. My background in street performing instilled in me the ability/obsession to approach any space as a potential venue, and know how to make it work best as one. Still, if I'm in a new town and happen to wonder down the high street, I'll be unable to fight the voices in my head saying “Ok, you'd pitch up there, facing this way, so you're not blocking any shop doorways. Nice flow of people, but the street is wide enough that you're not going to cause an obstruction and get stopped by the police. Also you could stand on that wall to grab attention, and put your suitcase on top of that rubbish bin...”, this is a curse that I'm pretty sure every street performer has. When I recently talked to Eddie Izzard, who, decades ago, I used to share a street pitch with, he said much the same thing. He told me that he'd just played the Hollywood Bowl, and wouldn't have known how to approach that gig, were it not for his days as a busker. 

But this applies to the nature of the gig, as much as it does the venue. I think I'm pretty good at being able to slightly tweak what I do, and more importantly, how I do it, to suit the style of show I'm in. Punchy and improvy for street shows, slick and witty for cabaret, stylish and clean for classic variete. The Night Kitchen Cabaret though, was at the far end of this range. I wasn't even playing myself, I was Great Uncle Alfie. I'd played him twice before, and I love him. He's a juggler, sure, and a butcher. He's also – small detail – been dead for two hundred years. But when the family needs him, he always finds a way to visit. He's east end. Where I feel awkward and shy in a pub, he'd be right at home there, leading a singalong and buying everyone a round. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to take me down to Edmonton Green market. She knew everyone, so on the journey there and back, we'd bump into window cleaners, fruit and veg sellers, and all manner of central casting 1970's London types. I remember loving it, and when I'm Alfie, I play him like all of those people. The rough grinning chancers that would chuck me an apple and ask me what football team I supported, then take it back unless I said Tottenham.

I'm sure there will be more installments of the Night Kitchen to come, full of impossible to describe but beautiful things, so keep an eye out. Regardless of my involvement, they're something special, as is Roses, the creative genius behind it all. And I use that word very consciously indeed. Watch out for her name in the future. You'd be fools not to.

(All the beautiful photos on this post, courtesy of the brilliant Lol Johnson. Go check out her work)

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