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…”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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.