Tag Archives: cabaret

Mike Raffone on street performance, Dada and his cabaret club for misfits

Mike Raffone bills himself as an “Eccentric Entertainer”.

I saw his Brain Rinse show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year – it was billed as ‘Puppetry of The Audience’ – and I went to his monthly Cabaret Rinse club at the Elephant & Castle in London last month. It is wonderfully unpredictable. The next one is this coming Friday.

“Why,” I asked, “was your Fringe show called Brain Rinse and your London club is called Cabaret Rinse?”

“Because, hopefully it rinses your brain. Not a brainwash. Just a mild rinse.”

“How would you describe Cabaret Rinse?”

“A club for misfits. We did a similar thing about five years ago in Peckham for about six months – The Royal National Theatre of Fools. I just decided we needed a National Theatre for idiots, but it proved quite an expensive hobby.”

Cabaret Rinse is all variety acts,” I said. “Not stand-up comedy…”

The ringmaster of anarchic entertainment – Mike Raffone

“Well,” Mike responded, “what is stand-up? Cabaret Rinse is comedy definitely. Funny definitely. Out there for sure. Interesting I hope. Entertaining I hope.

“When we did Theatre of Fools, we did have a secret non-stand-up policy. We don’t have that with Cabaret Rinse. Last month we had Candy Gigi. You could say she’s a stand-up, but… she’s one in a million, really. There’s bits of stand-up but bits of brilliant clowning. I see that in all the people I like.”

“Candy Gigi is wonderful,” I said, “but I’m a bit wary of the way people use the word ‘clowning’ nowadays.”

“I hate the way the word is used,” said Mike.

“Why?”

“It’s the connotation. The art aesthetic. I think great clowning tends to be anarchistic. I would say The Greatest Show on Legs is great clowning. Or Ken Campbell’s Roadshow.”

“I agree with you,” I said, “that The Greatest Show on Legs ARE clowns, but I’m not quite sure why.”

“I think it’s well rehearsed,” said Mike, “but it looks like it’s thrown together.”

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance in 2012

“Well,” I said, “with the Balloon Dance, the exact choreography is complicated and vital because it builds and it’s all about narrowly missing seeing the bits.”

“Ragged but in a great way,” agreed Mike. “It was by far the most hysterical thing that whole Fringe when I saw them in 2012.”

“Well,” I said, “they feel a bit like street performers but are not, though Martin Soan did start The Greatest Show on Legs as an adult Punch & Judy act. You, though, are basically a street performer at heart.”

“I dunno about ‘at heart’,” Mike replied. “I’m a performer at heart. But I’ve certainly done a lot of street performing. With Cabaret Rinse and Brain Rinse the idea is to take the energy and instantaneous edginess of street performing – of What the fuck is going to happen? – but NOT just do a street show indoors.

“Street theatre is so specific to where it is. There’s load of people there shopping and I’m gonna grab their attention. It’s the big trick. It’s grabbing the attention. If it’s a joke, it cannot be a subtle one. Everything’s big.  So I want to bring that kind of bigness and edginess and freshness into a – not an arty but a – theatrical setting.”

“You trained as an actor,” I said.

“…a misfit theatre course…”

“I remember, when I was a kid, around 16, ushering for my local theatre and seeing the Cardiff Lab and thinking This is weird. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. This guy is scary but I love it. Wow! This is incredible! 

“Then I did a theatre degree at Leicester Polytechnic which was a bit of a misfit theatre course. It was run by this guy – a little bit of a maverick – who wanted to make his own theatre school – a bit like Jacques Lecoq – and he didn’t want it to be conventional. But he also realised the only way he could get funding at that time – in the mid-1980s – was to hide behind the auspices of an academic institution.

“His philosophy was that he was going to run the course but try and have as little as possible to do with the bureaucratic workings of the polytechnic. I got to see things like Footsbarn. It was a very practical, creative course and I think I got a taste there for theatre that was out of the ordinary.”

“So you got a taste for the bizarre.”

“Yes. I got into street theatre 30 years ago. I remember going down to Covent Garden and seeing street shows – it was all quite new then – and thinking: I don’t have the balls to do that. But, within a month, I was doing it. Covent Garden was quite interesting at that time in the late 1980s. It was sort of mixing with New Variety.”

Mike Raffone, street entertainer, performing at the Covent Garden Piazza in London

“So you thought you could not do it but then started doing it?”

“There was a guy who dragged me into it because he wanted to do it. He was like a dancer and acrobat. So we put this terrible show together, did it for about three shows and then he fucked off. But, by then, I had my street performer’s licence.

“We did go to Paris and see this man called Bananaman, who was this mad bloke who collected junk and then played music with it outside the Pompidou Centre. It was all in French. And then he hit this real banana and smashed it and everyone just thought he was mad. Apparently he was seen in Paris as the world’s worst street performer, but I thought: Wow! That’s alternative!”

Mike has learned to conduct himself well in performance

“What did he hit the banana with?”

“A stick. To me it was an act of Dada.

“I thought it was brilliant. So we went back to Covent Garden and decided we were going to create a police car out of rubbish. We got all this rubbish and two half-arsed costumes together and the idea was it would look terrible. Other street performers came up to us and said: Right, here’s a bit of advice – Get yourself some proper costumes because, frankly, it just looks like rubbish at the moment. And we said: No! That’s the POINT!

“The word anarchy,” I said, “might put some people off. But, if you say Dada, it sounds arty and acceptable and respectable. What does Dada mean?”

“Meaningless… I suppose I like it when you take it to the max, If you are truly going to be Dada, I suppose you have to be anti-everything. Anti-script. Anti-comedy. Anti-anti-comedy.”

His autobiography – Hitting The Cobbles

“Being a street performer, though,” I suggested, “is quite disciplined. You have to be half performer and half barrowboy/street market trader. You have to grab the punters’ attention at  the start and tout for money at the end, with a performance bunged in the middle. So, in theory, you could transfer the actual performance indoors if you remove the ‘selling’ element.”

“I would agree with that.”

“Except that the selling,” I said, “is an integral part of the street performance.”

“Well,” replied Mike, “they say you ‘sell’ a joke and I’m very aware of how I am going to set up any part of the performance. I am quite analytical about selling the material. I don’t know if it’s my inbuilt insecurity as a performer, but I so see myself as a writer. I think: This has got to work on paper or it won’t work in performance. That’s probably not the case, but it’s how I see it. I write everything down, even if it is just: We will be improvising at this point. It’s some weird fear.”

“So you are not a Dadaist really,” I said, “because you want everything written-down and organised in advance.”

“No, I don’t think I’m a Dadaist.”

“An absurdist?” I asked.

“I don’t know. To me, if it’s funny, it’s funny. I remember years ago I was called a post-modernist street performer. I didn’t quite know what it meant.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. We’re done. Where are you going now?”

“I’m going to a museum. It’s putting on a Dada cabaret… All I want is a bicycle hooked up to a whoopee cushion and, when people ride fast enough, it makes the whoopee cushion fart. That’s all I want.”

But what about his name – Mike Raffone?

Is it his stage name or his real name?

Say it out loud.

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Award-winning Becky Fury WON’T tell me things but WILL give you a discount

The self-effacing Becky Fury (right) with Claire Lenahan has multiple advisors on self promotion

Someone said to me the other week: “Becky Fury seems to know everybody.”

I had to agree.

Becky with her Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award in 2016

The last time I went to see the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner’s Democratik Republik of Kabaret evening, her audience included The Establishment Club’s Mike O’Brien, acclaimed international graffiti artist Stik and British Alternative Comedy godfather/legend Tony Allen

“And now you are putting on The Alternative Christmas Party in Shoreditch,” I said to her yesterday.

“I’m doing two shows, John,” she told me. “One is The Alternative Christmas Party on 20th December. It’s a nice room, a really big room, a nice space for cabaret. At the Bridge Bar.”

“In Shoreditch,” I said, “So that will attract trendy IT people?”

“Hopefully,” said Becky, “spending money for their Christmas parties.”

“How much for the tickets?” I asked.

£20 via Eventbrite and on the door… But I will do a discount on the door for readers of your blog – It will only cost them £15 with the code words Becky Fury is Brilliant.

“They will be flying in from Guatemala in droves for it,” I enthused.

“And I’m also doing shows at the Cockpit Theatre,” Becky added.

“Near the Edgware Road in London,” I clarified, ever-thoughtful of my Guatemalan readers or reader. “So at the Cockpit you are doing what?”

“I don’t really want to go into what I’m doing.”

“I’m trying to create some interesting theatre. Anyway, I don’t really want to go into what I’m doing, otherwise people will just rip it off like they have in the past. I am just doing my thing.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. “Chat finished.”

“That’s it,” said Becky. “People will nick the idea.”

“Tell me the bits you can tell me,” I suggested. “When is the Cockpit Theatre thing?”

“February – the 12th.”

“What do you want to say about it? Heaven forfend that you would say anything to promote it.”

“I’ve been commissioned by the theatre to do a hybrid theatre cabaret gig.”

“What is a hybrid gig?” I asked. “Partly electric, partly petrol-driven?”

“I’ve been given a budget to create some cabaret around a theme.”

“And the theme is…?”

“They’re doing a Samuel Becket season at the Cockpit, so I have written Waiting for Guido. Which is the character in my play.”

“Guido Fawkes?” I asked.

“Yes. Precisely. It’s about waiting for a revolution that never happens.”

“Are you going to wear masks with beards?” I asked.

“No. There’s a couple of really good performers. Some of them are going to take on the theme more than others.”

“I suppose,” I said, “at this point in the blog, I should add in …she says intriguingly…

“The thing I don’t want to talk too much about…” said Becky

“If you like,” said Becky. “What I’m trying to do… Well, the thing I don’t want to talk too much about… is I’ve got three characters and they’re all gonna do monologues. I’ve got Geoff Steel, who is in The Alternative Christmas Party, and Jonathan Richardson, the guy who runs House of Idiot. There’s going to be people doing some circus stuff. And Trevor Lock is headlining.”

“As himself?” I asked.

“Well, he is playing the Sun,” Becky replied. “That’s what he’s been told to do.”

“How?” I asked.

“However he wants to interpret that.”

“This Cockpit Theatre thing and The Alternative Christmas Party,” I asked, “are they under the banner of The Democratik Republik of Kabaret?”

“No. I have been told it should be Becky Fury or Fury Productions.”

“Or just Becky Fury Presents,” I suggested. “You have to have a brand.”

“That is what I have been told by my friend who has managed to make his brand out of drawing stickmen.”

“Has The Democratik Republik of Kabaret disappeared?” I asked.

“It is on hold.”

“Until?” I asked.

“Until I find a better venue. But The Alternative Christmas Party is essentially an extension of what’s going on in The Democratik Republik of Kabaret.”

“What IS going on in The Democratik Republik of Kabaret?” I asked.

“It is a sort of Maoist state,” Becky replied. “No. It’s not a Maoist state,” she corrected herself. “It’s a bit like North Korea. So we will never really know. Journalists obviously are not allowed to investigate it.”

“My head hurts,” I said. “This Alternative Christmas Party in Shoreditch on 20th December… erm…”

Who is in the show?” Becky suggested.

“Comedians want to talk about themselves but”

“I never asked,” I told her. “By the sound of it, you are keeping schtum. It’s that odd thing about comedians – They want to talk about themselves but are perversely shy.”

“Well,” said Becky, “Lewis Schaffer is playing Santa Claus.”

“Will he win?” I asked.

“It depends which game they’re playing,” Becky replied.

“So Lewis Schaffer,” I said, “Jewish comedian, plays Santa Claus, Christian saint and symbol of pagan midwinter…”

“It is an Alternative Christmas Party,” Becky reminded me. “A Jewish Santa. With Lewis Schaffer as a sleazy Santa Claus… In the publicity, I wanted there to be a little imp with a strap-on and, in the show, I wanted to sexually assault boys, but I couldn’t find any boys who would let me sexually assault them.”

“That is hardly credible,” I said. “Anyone else in this sophisticated soirée?”

“There’s a Virgin Mary striptease…”

“By whom?” I asked.

“I believe Claire Lenahan, who is also doing some amazing comedy magic. And there is Geoff Steel, who is also doing my Cockpit show. He is a very interesting up-and-coming act.”

“When you say up-and-coming,” I asked, “into what is he rising and coming?”

“Are you trying to be sleazy?” Becky asked.

“I try,” I said. “Anything else happening after the show that evening?”

“A disco.”

“And who else is performing?”

“Oh – I am…. I am going to compere.”

“That is not mentioned on the flyer,” I said.

“According to my friend who has made his celebrity from drawing stickmen, I need to promote myself better. Am I allowed to say that?”

“I dunno. Are you?”

“I think so.”

Becky’s 2016 Edinburgh Fringe publicity flyer aided by Stik

“Stik did your Edinburgh Fringe poster last year.”

“Two years ago. The year I won the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award. He did do that poster, so I think maybe we are going to have a collaboration next year.”

“At the Edinburgh Fringe next year?”

“Yes.”

“And the show will be…?”

Apocoloptimist.”

“Which you are trying out in…?”

Leicester in February and Brighton in May.”

“You tried out one bit in Edinburgh this year,” I said. “The bit about being in Calais.”

“Yes. Going to the Calais Jungle and, when you try to do the right thing, it goes horribly wrong…”

“Except for the lucky boy on the beach,” I said.

“You know too much,” Becky told me.

“You will have to do the full autobiographical show at some point,” I told her. “That’s what makes an impact at the Edinburgh Fringe. Laughter and tears. You were telling me some hair-raising tales from your past a few weeks ago and I was thinking: That’s a cracker of an Edinburgh show!

Becky Fury raised an eyebrow like Roger Moore.

It is an admirable skill, though difficult to divine its exact meaning.

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Last night I saw a woman sing with her hand up several dead animals’ heads

The queue stretch along the tunnel last night

Queue stretched along a tunnel while dead animals warmed up

Last night was surreal.

Well, there is surreal and then there is pure gimmickry.

I am not sure which I saw last night.

Pull The Other One comedy club runner Vivienne Soan and I went to see a variety of dead animals sing and perform in The Vaults, which are in an extraordinary officially-graffiti-encouraged tunnel under Waterloo station in London.

The event was artist Charlie Tuesday Gates’ allegedly ‘private’ view and stage performance of exhibits at her Museum of Death.

Charlie Tuesday Gates’ dead bird house

Charlie Tuesday Gates’ dead bird house + nose

A very, very large audience was hanging around and queuing outside the venue for about half an hour after the billed start time because, according to the security guy on the door “They’re warming up inside.”

This is not something you necessarily want to hear about performing dead animals.

According to the tease by Saatchi Art, who know a thing or two about ‘bigging-up’ Art: “Despite never describing herself as a taxidermist, Charlie Tuesday Gates was instrumental in bringing this previously dark art into the mainstream with her pioneering performance series, D.I.Y Taxidermy LIVE!”

Charlie Tuesday Gates is a vegan.

The come-on for the show went:

Vivienne watched an ‘animaal-ation’ film last night

Vivienne watched a 21st century fox ‘animal-ation’ art film

“Gates’ first solo show since retirement transports you into a fantasy underworld where beauty and death collide with nostalgia and borderline insanity… Controversial ‘animalation’ video pieces will also be screened and a special live performance of Gates’ Musical: ‘SING FOR YOUR LIFE!’ in which real animals are manipulated by hand to perform, sing and dance in a bizarre talent contest: a cross between X-Factor and Pet Rescue…. Where the recently deceased compete for the chance to live again.

“Her fashion brand ‘Mind Like Magpie’ provides the perfect complement to her sculptural work: wearable art that will be showcased alongside the exhibition… Pieces have been commissioned for Elton John, Beyoncé and even appeared on the holy head of Cara Delevingne.”

So there were the exhibits last night…

…and then there was the performance.

Charlie Tuesday Gates

Charlie Tuesday Gates – hand up dead beast

Basically Charlie Tuesday Gates sang while her hand was inside the heads of dead, skinned animals, moving them as if they were doing the singing… and a man manipulated the fore-legs of the dead foxes, badgers, dogs etc. He used sticks attached to the limbs. It was a bit like some Muppet musical staged during the Weimar Republic with disembowelled dead animals.

Someone in the audience told us: “You know, she normally gives live skinning demonstrations during her shows?”

We didn’t.

Is it Art or is it gimmicky?

Is it Art or just a gimmick? People thought Art.

According to the publicity: “Working with audience participation, she skins and stuffs an animal using only the most basic ingredients: salt, sanitary towels and Shake n’ Vac.”

There has been talk of Charlie Tuesday Gates appearing at one of Vivienne & Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One shows at Nunhead, in London.

I said to Vivienne after the show, as we left through the graffiti-festooned tunnels under Waterloo station: “You should maybe put her on at Pull The Other One in Leipzig. It might remind them of Berlin in 1936. When is your next Leipzig show?”

“June the 7th,” said Vivienne.

“Have you any locals on the bill?” I asked.

“We have Felix & Jander, a couple of local artists in Leipzig. Jander is a mathematician and an artist. He is going to give a lecture to the audience on mathematics.”

“Is he a fine artist or a performance artist?” I asked.

“A performance, fine and mathematical artist,” replied Vivienne.

This did not make things any clearer.

But, perhaps, I would not have it any other way.

Last night was surreal.

That is good.

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Cabaret performer Lili La Scala gets emotional over Nick Cave & a dead cat

Lilli with Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

Lili La Scala + Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

I talked to cabaret performer Lili La Scala at a famous members club in London this week. It seemed suitably suave and sophisticated. (She is a member. They not unreasonably rejected me several years ago.)

Lili is married to performer Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face. They had a son last year They named him Rafferty Basil Danger Wills.

“Why those names?” I asked.

“Rafferty because we just liked it,” explained Lili. “And Basil was my grandfather’s name.”

“And Danger?” I asked.

“Because I just love the idea he can truthfully say: Danger is my middle name.

“And you named yourself after the Italian word for staircase?” I asked.

“I trained as an opera singer,” explained Lili, “so I named myself after La Scala opera house in Milan – or the picture house in Glasgow, whichever you prefer.”

“Why are you not an opera singer now?” I asked.

“Because I fell into the dark, dirty world of burlesque and cabaret. Well, actually, I fell into street performing first.”

“As what?” I asked.

“As an opera singer on the street. They called me The Songbird of Trafalgar Square.

“Who did?”

The Songbird of Trafalgar Square on Flickr

Songbird of Trafalgar Square attracted a following on Flickr

“One day on Flickr, I stumbled on a group dedicated to me… it was a compliment but also slightly freaky. There were about 200 pictures of me – I looked a bit unusual, with dark hair and a Fifties dress singing opera. They didn’t know what my name was, so they just put Songbird of Trafalgar Square.”

“Didn’t your voice get lost in the vast open space of Trafalgar Square?” I asked.

“The low notes did,” said Lili, “but the high notes carried because they were a higher frequency than the traffic: it was when Trafalgar Square was still a roundabout. I sang with my back to the National Gallery. I was a Swing dancer for a long time, too. My mother trained as a ballet dancer but now she’s a physio who works with performers.”

“Did you dance in Trafalgar Square?”

“No,” replied Lili. “You get sent home for dancing in Trafalgar Square.”

“And singing?” I asked.

“Yes. That too. They sent two policemen and a police car. But they just told me to go away. It would have looked ridiculous for them to arrest a girl who was much smaller than them and wearing a 1950s-looking dress.”

“Why do you dress in 1950s costumes?” I asked.

“When I was about 21,” explained Lili, “I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.”

if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.

“I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should.”

“But then,” I said, “you went into burlesque. Why?”

“A friend of mine said one day: Have you ever thought of putting together opera and burlesque? Don’t you think it would go really well? And I thought Ooh! So I tried it and it was really good. I have a huge soft spot for the burlesque world anyway.”

“You are saying Burlesque not Cabaret,” I pointed out. “Isn’t cabaret more respectable?”

“I think burlesque is pretty respectable at the moment,” said Lili.

“I would have said you were cabaret,” I told her. “You’re Monte Carlo 1963. What’s the difference between burlesque and cabaret anyway?”

“Burlesque has more tits,” said Lili. “There was more stripping originally. American burlesque evolved into what is now big sparkly showgirl stuff whereas the English Music Hall style was much more of a send-up, making it funny, taking the piss out of stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I adore the showgirl stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m too kookie and too clumsy.”

“The last couple of years at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said, “a lot of the funniest stuff has not been in the Comedy section but the Cabaret section. I loved your show last year Another Fucking Variety Show. You’re a very good compere.”

There are, inevitably, clips on YouTube.

“It’s really funny,” said Lili. “Everyone thinks I’m this cool, in-command person.”

“Well,” I said, “Lili La Scala couldn’t do a really emotional show, could she?”

Lilli La Scala created emotional War Notes

Lili La Scala created emotional War Notes

“Rubbish!” said Lili. “When I decided I wanted to stop doing street performing, the first solo show I created was about my first love: vintage songs, because I grew up watching movie musicals. So I created a show called War Notes – songs from World War One and Two, but I wanted to make them more relevant. So I found letters from servicemen in current conflicts. This was 2010, so the wars were Afghanistan and Iraq. The letters were the ones that said: If you are reading this, I’ve been killed.

“I found them on Google and wrote to a member of the family of the service personnel. It was fairly gut-wrenching researching them but I found a lot of the sentiment in the letters was really similar to the sentiment in the songs, even though they were sometimes separated by almost a full century in time.

“I had friends and knew boyfriends of friends who were serving in Afghanistan. I performed the whole month of Edinburgh and it was a really emotional show – to listen to those letters every night.”

“What did you do immediately after the show?” I asked.

“I went out and got very drunk.”

“And the next show after that?” I asked.

“After that, I created Songs To Make You Smile which was just an hour of comedy songs from 1920-1950, real British variety. That has toured ever since – Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and all over the place.”

Lilli’s new show - not in Edinburgh until 2015

The new show – not in Edinburgh until 2015

“My new solo show Siren is on 21st June at the London Wonderground – the closest thing London has to a cabaret festival. I just did it in Adelaide and it was very well-received there. I attempt to sing stuff I’ve never sung before, which is wonderfully challenging for me.”

“But you’ve sung 1930s standards and opera and music hall songs,” I said. “there’s nothing much left.”

“Well, there’s some Tom Waits,” said Lili. “All the songs in the show are about the sea and journeys and travelling and some are really emotional for me.

“There’s one – Nick Cave’s Ship Song…

“I got very emotional when I sang it, because it reminded me a lot about a love affair I had when I was very young which went horrifically wrong and it had left me utterly broken-hearted. He said I could be his girl in London but he wanted to have an open relationship and I’m not really an open relationship kind of girl. I attempted it because I really, really loved him, but I ended up giving him an ultimatum saying: Look, we have heaps of fun together, but I can’t do this. We can either be together – just us – or not… And he chose Not.

“I thought I’d dealt with it back then but it turned out I’d just buried it under the patio. To find out it was still festering was an emotional shock for me.

“Then he turned up in town and we bumped into each other because – of course – we have the same circle of friends. We hadn’t spoken for eight years, so it was awkward. He said he was having an open relationship with his girlfriend. He said: If I could have been with just one someone, it would have been you… or maybe the girl I dated the year after you… He said he couldn’t even own a refrigerator. Too much commitment.”

“It’s alright for a spoken word performer to well-up emotionally,” I said, “but, if you’re singing and genuinely well-up, your voice won’t recover from that for – what? – 10 seconds?”

“Really,” explained Lili, “what you’re aiming for is several glistening tears rolling down your cheek. I was genuinely very tearful when I sang it. Then he came to the show and it gave me that moment to say all the stuff I wanted to say to him without him having any way of going But… but… but… By the end of it, I was Oh. I’m done now. It’s over. That’s fine. we’re done.”

“So what happened the next time you sang the song?” I asked.

“I then had to find some other way of creating that emotion in me that affects the audience because, obviously, I like the way it emotionally affects the audience.”

This bemused creature has a dog’s life

This beloved bemused creature has a dog’s life

“So how did you find that?”

“I thought about my dead cat.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“How many cats do you have?”

“Five cats and two dogs. The dogs are utterly cowed, though the dachshund is like a little dictator, perhaps because he’s German.”

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Filed under Cabaret, Comedy, Music

Odd UK comic acts: teddy bear torture and the man who ate his own brain

Comic investigator Liam Lonergan

Comic academic Liam Lonergan

Starting last week, I have posted three extracts from a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

This is final extract:

__________

John: In the 1980s you went to alternative comedy shows and got a stand-up bloke talking about Margaret Thatcher. You got a juggler. You got a man who came on and read awful poetry. And you got a man who came and set fire to his hair or something. Lots of variety.

Whereas now if you go to a comedy club it’s stand-up followed by stand-up followed by stand-up followed by a bigger stand-up.

Liam: Variety is sort of dead, isn’t it?

John: Yeah. So you’ve got, like, five people all basically doing the same thing and there actually isn’t any variety on the bill, whereas the original alternative comedy actually had variety. The last two years at the Edinburgh Fringe I thought the funniest acts were mostly listed in the Cabaret section.

The last two years – possibly three years – there’s been a Cabaret section separate from the Comedy section and I’ve seen quite a lot of the shows and a lot of the funnier shows have actually been the cabaret section shows and not the comedy section. In the Comedy section they’re either doing straight stand-up or they’re doing quite good storytelling or they’re doing “I’m a student being wild and wacky”. God help us! If you ever see the word ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’ in a listing, avoid it like the plague.

Liam: That’s it. Toxic.

John: Whereas, in the Cabaret section, just weird things are going on. And very, very funny.

Liam: I didn’t know whether, within the dissertation articles I’m doing, to incorporate comedy revue and local theatre as well because there’s lots of that going on…

John: Small comedy clubs are closing and people are getting less interested in new comedy. You can see the big comedians with guaranteed quality in a big venue like the O2.

So why should you go to a small comedy club with acts you’ve never heard of? Acts who may be good but you’ve never heard of them so it’s a matter of luck. And, if you go to a comedy club, you’re going to get five or six people doing the same thing: stand-up. Whereas in the 1980s and early 1990s you got variety so you’d no idea what you were going to see. I mean, you would get Chris Lynam coming on and sticking a firework between his buttocks and they’d play No Business Like Showbusiness. Now THAT is entertainment.

There used to be an act who just came on and tortured teddy bears. There was a wheel of pain and the teddy bear got strapped to the wheel of pain and got tortured. Someone told me the guy is now a social worker in Tower Hamlets.

That’s what we want. That’s entertainment. Have you seen Hannibal? The sequel to The Silence of the Lambs?

Liam: The sequel to the film? Yes. Yes I have.

John: He eats someone else’s brain while the guy is still alive.

Liam: Oh, yeah.

John: There used to be a variety act in the 1980s or 1990s – someone told me he was a psychiatrist, I don’t know if he was – and he used to go round the comedy clubs with an act and the act was that he wore a fez and he had a spoon and he used to eat his own brain. He put the spoon inside the top of the fez and brought out grey stuff which he ate. And, as he ate different parts of his brain, different parts of his ability to communicate and to function disappeared. So he’d eat one part of his brain and he’d keep talking to the audience all the way through, then he starts twitching. So then he eats another bit and his speech starts to slur or the words get mixed up. It was simultaneously funny and very unsettling and scary because it like a flash forward to your own senility. You don’t get many of those type of acts anymore.

Liam: It’s a shame that’s dead because that’s the kind of stuff I’d… the audience reaction to that would be so mixed. It would be so…

John: You couldn’t altogether say it was funny but it was unsettling all the way through. It certainly wasn’t straight stand-up.

Liam: But that’s what I love. That’s what I…

John: Last year I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy. There were four shows in a row. Not a titter. And I was sitting there thinking These people are sitting there trying to write a series of funny gag lines and that’s not really…

Liam: I think weird stuff can tap into humanity and the visceral reactions a lot more than the clever stuff.

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In Leipzig, a bizarre British comedy club succeeds and a Dresden voice impresses

Vivienne Soan even promoted the show to statues

Vivienne Soan even flyered the PTOO show to local statues

Pull The Other One’s brand of bizarre British comedy cabaret club seems to have transferred successfully to Germany on its first attempt. Last night, the doors opened at 8.30pm for their 9.00pm first show in Leipzig and, with pre-bookings and people turning up on the night, the house was totally full by 8.45pm and a large number of people had to be turned away.

On the bill were (in order of appearance) Vivienne and Martin Soan, Dickie Richards (one third of the Greatest Show On Legs), eye-opening Berlin cabaret act Bartuschka (who did her act partly in English), stand-up Nick Revell (who did his act partly in German) and Candy Gigi who successfully did her act on some other planet much to the open-mouthed appreciative shock of the local audience.

Dickie Richards last night pondering his opening

Dickie Richards last night pondering openings

There was much talk before the show about whether the locals would 100% understand English, but this seemed to be no problem. And Dickie Richards (who is part Polish) resolved his artistic crisis of “Shall I start with How Poland started the Second World War or shall I do the fart material?” by choosing the latter. It was a successful choice, though I suspect Option 1 might have worked too.

That was last night.

This afternoon, local Leipzig film maker Kali took Martin Soan and me to see Dresden-based singer Anna Maria Scholz aka Annamateur interviewed and perform on live radio show MDR Figaro-Cafe

I cannot speak nor read a word of German, so a 90 minute show mostly comprising chat was an interesting experience, mostly involving me listening carefully to the cadences of the words in the abstract. But, then, I used to enjoy listening to the abstract splendour of BBC Radio 4’s late-night Offshore Shipping Forecast and, in years long gone by, a BBC announcer reading the day’s Stock Market prices.

Anna Maria Scholz, as promoted by MDR Figaro-Cafe

Anna Maria Scholz aka Annamateur, as shown by Figaro-Cafe

I am glad I went, though, because it meant I heard and saw Anna Maria Scholz perform.

I may not understand German words, but I know an astonishingly talented and varied voice when I hear one. Every song different and a showcase in itself.

Martin & Vivienne Soan’s Pull The Other One is set to return to Leipzig in April and, after that, with luck, the German version of their club will be monthly.

There is a 2012 video of Anna Maria Scholz on YouTube.

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The comedy girl who throws breakfast cereal in her face and WANTS to be mad

Candy Gigi at last night’s Pull The Other One

Candy Gigi at Pull The Other One with cereal and lipstick

I have mentioned comedy act Candy Gigi a couple of times in earlier blogs. I saw her stuffing massive amounts of Corn Flakes into her mouth at Pull The Other One comedy club and I saw her attack people – including me – with some sort of green vegetation at Lost Cabaret.

When I talked to her this week, she was rather less manic in Soho.

“You studied musical theatre at Mountview Acting School,” I said to her. “So you wanted to be an actress?”

“I could have been doing musical theatre,” she told me. “But I didn’t want to be in a cast.”

“You don’t want to soil yourself with money?” I asked.

“Well, there’s probably more money in comedy than in musicals,” she told me. “A lot of my friends are in musicals and they make virtually nothing. My friend has a secondary part in The Book of Mormon in the West End and he doesn’t get a lot.”

“But odd, surreal acts are a difficult sell,” I said. “If you want to make money, why not just do straight stand-up?”

“My mind doesn’t work that way,” explained Candy Gigi. “I need to be physical. And I don’t actually want to change or tone down the act. I think if people like me, they’ll come to me; my audience will find me. If I just adapt and become like everybody else, then what was the point of doing this in the first place?”

“What WAS the point of doing it in the first place?” I asked.

“Hopefully,” she replied, “I’ll make a lot of money from it and become a huge star.”

“Any showbiz in your family?” I asked.

Candy Gigi in Soho this week

Candy Gigi – the non-meshugenah version

“My third cousin is Ron Moody who was Fagin in Oliver! and my dad was an impersonator. He’s a lawyer now and he really misses the… He would have loved to have done what I’m doing. He’s a lawyer, but he hates it and wishes he could have done comedy.”

“When did he stop?” I asked.

“When he went to university, because his parents wanted him to be a lawyer. My parents are very supportive about what I do. When my mum comes to my shows, she loves them.”

“But why the Corn Flakes in the face?” I asked.

“I really don’t know; they just work.”

“Unscripted?”

“I do have a script for everything I do.”

“When I saw you at Lost Cabaret,” I said, “in the interval you went on stage while people were off getting drinks, turned your back to the room and you were rehearsing.”

“Yeah. People think I just come on and go mental, but there’s thought behind it.”

“What’s the thought?”

“I can’t explain it. You can’t just act mad, though sometimes I’m aware most of the time it’s just crazy. What I’m trying to find is the up-and-down, the light-and-shade. I think, once I find that, I’ll be more suitable for mainstream audiences because there will be more colour and it won’t be just crazy. I’ve only been doing comedy for a year-and-a-half.

“I think what people tend to find shocking about my act is that I’m quite… not feminine, not girly… but maybe I seem like a stereotypical girl, into fashion and so on and then I go on stage and I’m quite grotesque. I really ugly it up.”

“When you were a kid,” I asked, “did you like grotesques?”

Candy Gigi likes grotesquery and discomfort

Grotesquery and discomfort in Soho this week

“I always liked Jim Carrey and Mr Bean.”

“Jim Carrey because he is….”

“Facially grotesque and visual,” replied Candy Gigi.

“You like to be grotesque on stage,” I said. “Is that some sort of defence mechanism?”

“Probably,” said Candy Gigi. “I like looking ugly. I like the part where it’s a bit unsettling. I like that.”

“You like controlling the audience?”

“Yeah. I like giving them that sort of feeling of discomfort. Also, most people have got that level of insanity within them – that twisted, warped darkness.”

“Maybe only performers?” I suggested.

“I know a lot of people who are mentally… Well, maybe…” admitted Candy Gigi. “Predominantly performers, possibly… I think my personality is bizarre. I’m just being me and that just so happens to be bizarre.”

“How are you bizarre?” I asked.

“I’ve probably got a bit of a personality disorder. “

“Diagnosed?”

“No, but I’ve probably got something. I’m very up-and-down.”

“Bi-polar?”

“I don’t think I’ve actually got it, but I’ve possibly got a few elements of that.”

“Like being Stephen Fry but without the buggery?” I suggested.

“I love him,” said Candy Gigi. “How could anyone not?”

“Your dad is a frustrated performer?” I asked.

“My dad is…” said Candy Gigi, “He’s… Imagine Basil Fawlty… He is just like Basil Fawlty, but possibly more irate and frustrated and hysterical – like the episode where he’s beating up a car with a tree. He’s the shouty Basil Fawlty where he gets irate and crazy over nothing; on the brink of a heart attack. He’s good at his job, he works really hard, he’s a really good dad, but he’s crazy. My elder brother’s quite straight but me and my little brother are just completely gone with the eccentricity.”

“Is your mother eccentric?”

“She’s a little Jewish crazy lady.”

“Anarchy and chicken soup?” I asked.

“She’s wonderful and lovely and kind,” said Candy Gigi.

“Does she work?” I asked.

“She looks after old people with Alzheimer’s. They come round our house. We were brought up around a lot of odd people and a lot of my family are… a few mental illnesses.

“I once had something written about me saying my act was taking the mickey out of people with mental health problems, totally tearing into me… And it’s just not true.

“I really am very familiar with mental health problems and I don’t know anyone who’s got a mental health condition who throws Crunchy Nuts in their face and scrawls red lipstick all over their face and behaves like I do on stage. How is that taking the mickey out of people who are mentally ill? That’s actually very offensive to people who do have bad mental health. They don’t behave like that.

“Even if that were the case – that I was taking the mickey – and it isn’t – I would still stand by it, because why do you have to tip-toe round Society and people’s problems? Why not laugh? Why NOT laugh?”

“To be a comedian,” I suggested, “you have to perform or view things abnormally, don’t you?”

“I’m very familiar with mental health problems,” replied Candy Gigi. “I’ve got it within my family and I think I’ve got it within me, otherwise how would I have thought of my act? Where does it come from? Your act comes from you. It’s just an extension of myself.”

“There is a showbiz tradition,” I said, “of grotesques and people doing mad, surreal things.”

Candy Gigi last, spitting out vegitative matter

Candy Gigi, last seen spitting out vegetative matter at Lost Cabnaret

“Yes,” said Candy Gigi. “Basil Fawlty – mad. Mr Bean – autistic. There’s loads of characters throughout the years who have been incredibly successful but have definitely got some form of mental ill-health. David Brent in The Office. There is something not right about THAT man.”

“So, you’re 24 now,” I said. “Where will you be when you’re 29?”

“Fucking successful,” said Candy Gigi. “I really want to be big in comedy. But, even if I become famous, I’ll still be a bloody mentalist. If anything, I’ll probably be even worse, because I think the fame will make me go meshugenah – I’ll turn to alcohol and food and I really will be throwing Crunchy Nut at my own face.”

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Filed under Acting, Comedy, Mental health, Surreal, Theatre