Tag Archives: street theatre

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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A strange showbiz meeting + the adult Punch & Judy show banned in Cornwall

(A version of this was also published in the Huffington Post)

In my quest for a third Christmas with Malcolm Hardee story to titillate potential blog-readers, I spent yesterday afternoon at comedian Martin Soan’s home.

Martin was in The Greatest Show on Legs comedy troupe with Malcolm. They were best-known for their naked balloon dance on Chris Tarrant’s OTT TV show but, in fact, The Greatest Show on Legs was originally Martin’s solo act: a Punch & Judy show.

“I had a booth that went on my shoulders, hence the name Greatest Show on Legs,” he explains.

He started the act when he was 18 and it was not until he was 26 that he met Malcolm Hardee, at which point they teamed-up for two or three years with Martin continuing to perform the Punch & Judy show and Malcolm being the ‘interpreter’ outside the booth. It was when Malcolm came out of prison after his second ‘stretch’ that they decided to expand the act into more sketch-based comedy.

Yesterday, I got somewhat distracted in my search for a Christmas with Malcolm Hardee anecdote, because Martin Soan is a walking (or, yesterday, sitting) encyclopaedia of fascinating facts, with a daughter who is a big fan of the TV show QI.

Once you have been told that eating jelly will strengthen your finger nails and hard rock guitarists have been known to eat a lot of jelly to harden the nails on their plucking fingers, you tend to forget other things because you start to imagine leather-clad Heavy Metal hard-nuts gorging on wobbly desserts. It is not a comforting image.

And then the West Country Punch & Judy tours came up in conversation.

The Greatest Show on Legs used to perform in streets, on beaches and in pubs.

“Me and Malcolm were doing a show on Plymouth Hoe,” Martin told me, “and it was memorable for two things. One – an egg was thrown at us… and two – after the show where the egg was thrown at us – this rather attractive young lady came up to us and said: A friend of mine is doing a show at the Theatre Royal and has invited you along and here’s some tickets.

“So we turned up and found it was the stage production of Yes, Prime Minister featuring her friend Harry Worth as the Prime Minister.”

For anyone of a certain age, Harry Worth and the iconic opening title sequence of his TV show was the stuff of legend.

“At the end of the play,” Martin told me, “he came back on stage and did a little routine as his Harry Worth character – his TV show leg-lifting thing and everything.

“And, after that, the same rather attractive young lady comes up to us and asks, Would you like to join Harry Worth backstage? So Malcolm and I went and had a chat with him and he was a lovely, lovely gentleman.

Would you like to come for a meal? he asked us.

“So we went to a local Indian restaurant and had a meal with Harry Worth. All polite conversation. It turned out the girl was his P.A. who went round with him. He had been at the show where the egg had been thrown at us and I guess he just felt sorry for us, so he sent his P.A. over to invite us to the theatre.”

Frankly, that is a meal I would have paid to see: the future kings of nude alternative comedy chatting with Harry Worth over a meal in an Indian restaurant in Plymouth

If you get an egg thrown at you in Plymouth, though, it does tend to mean you may have annoyed or outraged a section of the local populace. Which brings me to another odd fact Martin brought up yesterday afternoon.

“What’s the one thing that distinguishes Punch & Judy from every other type of light entertainment in Britain?” he asked.

“No idea.” I eventually replied.

“It has never been banned,” he said.

And this is true if you take the overview.

But Martin’s Greatest Show on Legs was specifically banned – from performing anywhere in the county of Cornwall.

The way Martin tells it, local street traders and retailers had complained about the GSOL show adversely affecting their business by distracting potential shoppers. “I think maybe they were jealous because of the attention we were getting,” he says.

And indeed, The Times ran a semi-outraged half-page article about Cornwall County Council banning a Punch & Judy show. Were councils, the article asked, getting too draconian and conservative?

The Greatest Show on Legs were banned from performing anywhere in the whole county of Cornwall. “But of course,” says Martin, “we still used to set up and do shows, because they couldn’t police the ban.”

And I have a sneaking suspicion the nature of the show might have influenced the Council’s decision as much as the jealousy of local traders. For one thing, it was not a children’s but an adult version of Punch & Judy which The Greatest Show on Legs performed – sometimes to local Hells Angels, more usually to the general adult public in streets, on beaches and in pubs.

“In the show,” admits Martin, “there were two innovative things that we developed. The first was that Albert Edward Harry, our crocodile, used to eat 25ft of sausages. The inside of the booth on my shoulders was stuffed full of sausages and I couldn’t wait to get the routine out-of-the-way so I could move. Malcolm used to go out into the audience and give the end of the sausages to any rather attractive girl, then Albert Edward would start eating the sausages and the woman would start getting nearer and nearer until I got her in the booth.

“The second innovation was that Malcolm used to sit in front of the booth reading a pornographic magazine and Mr Punch would read it over his shoulder and slowly get an erection and then get more and more excited – I used to build it up as long as I could – and eventually he would come over the audience and I would use my Swazzle for sound effects – the Swazzle is ideal for faking the sound of an orgasm – Oh ooh ooooh ooohaah oohhhhhhh! – and I’d up end by yelling out That’s the way to do it!”

Ah! Innocent days.

Innocent golden days.

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As the climax to a show it is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage, because you can’t expect it.

Juggler Mat Ricardo worries me.

Last night, I went to his 60-minute show Three Balls and a Good Suit because I had seen him perform maybe 15-20 minutes at Pull The Other One in Nunhead just over a week ago and he had said – correctly – that what he would do at the end of his act was physically impossible. It was. And it is. But he did it.

Far be it from me to lapse into cliché, but I could not believe my eyes in Nunhead.

I had never seen anyone else do what he did and I have seen quite a few acts. Mat tells me that, as far as he knows, he is the only person in the world doing it, because he himself figured out how it could be done.

He did it again last night and it is still astonishing. As the climax to a show it is one of the best things I have ever seen on stage, because you don’t expect it. You can’t expect it – it is theoretically impossible.

And the build-up is impeccable because Mat – a sometime street performer – has some great audience-manipulation patter. There is an earlier dagger-juggling section in the show which is a joy to watch just from a structural point of view. Forget the juggling – the verbal patter, the build-up and the control over what the audience thinks it is seeing are a joy in themselves. It is a tribute to his experience.

But he worries me because I try to be aware of good acts and, until just over a week ago, I had never heard of Mat Ricardo. And he is more than just good.

It seems Mat has mostly worked abroad and on cruise ships though originally in street theatre, so I have some excuse, but not much. The full title of his show is Three Balls and a Good Suit: Tales From the Life of a Jaded Novelty Act. I missed it at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and should be ashamed of myself – although it was only on for the first two weeks and, in my opinion, you have to play all four weeks (especially the last two) for three consecutive years to get noticed. But still I am ashamed of myself-ish. I have a high threshold of shame. Fringe Guru not surprisingly gave the show a 5-star review – and that was without the extraordinary new final climax which is so gobsmacking.

Because it was a good show even without the final stunt. Three Balls and a Good Suit also includes one of the best dissections of the street performer’s art I have ever heard and a wonderfully caustic attack on Britain’s Got Talent – it was no news to me but it might be to some that Britain’s Got Talent regularly approaches professional acts and invites them to the auditions (with no waiting in line). No guarantee that they will get chosen, but an assumption that part of their audition will get screened, potentially getting them 2 million hits and upwards on YouTube.

Personally, I have no problem with this but Mat does and I can understand why. Still, in my opinion, 2 million hits on YouTube and a live TV audience of 8 or 10 million is worth a punt. Anyway…

I was interested that Mat said he was partly inspired to become a juggler by old re-runs of W.C.Fields movies on TV – Fields was a great stage juggler before he became a great movie comedian.

And Mat can juggle five balls.

Although I could not do it myself because I am crap at manual co-ordination, I have never been impressed by anyone juggling three balls. As far as I understand it, at any given time, one ball is in or leaving/entering one hand. Another ball is leaving/entering the other hand. So those two balls can be mentally ignored because their trajectory is certain. You only have to concentrate on the one remaining ball in mid-air.

If, you juggle four balls, there are two balls in mid-air at any given time, so to juggle four balls is twice as difficult as juggling three balls.

And if you juggle five balls, there are three balls in mid-air. So juggling five balls is three times as difficult as juggling three balls. It is bloody, bloody, bloody difficult to do.

According to Mat, his idol Enrico Rastelli could juggle ten balls.

My mind can barely comprehend the complications. I find it almost incredible.

But then Mat himself has already done one thing that is impossible.

For 25 years, I have wanted to see a man or woman juggle cooked spaghetti for more than one minute.

Mat Ricardo gives me hope.

(SPAGHETTI-JUGGLING POSTSCRIPT: Steve Ochs tells me that US comic Lenny Schultz, who was in the cast of the revived Laugh In TV show in the early 1980s, “would get club audiences to yell, Go crazy, Lenny! while he did crazy shit. Among his nutty bits, performed after he was stripped down to a Speedo, was, that’s right; cooked spaghetti juggling!”… He couldn’t actually do it, though, so my search continues.)

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“Britain’s Got Talent”, Eric Morecambe, Malcolm Hardee and the question of torturing teddy bears

Last Sunday, at the late Malcolm Hardee’s annual birthday celebrations (he drowned in 2005), excerpts were screened from Jody VandenBurg’s long-planned feature-length documentary about the great man. If the mountain of great anecdotes which I know Jody has can ever be edited down to 90-minutes or so, it will be an extraordinary piece of social history: a vivid glimpse into the early days of British Alternative Comedy.

Last Thursday, I saw a vivid insight into an earlier British showbiz era: a preview of the first episode of BBC TV’s The Story of Variety with Michael Grade – it’s a two-part documentary to be broadcast much later this year.

I learnt stuff.

I didn’t know that smooth, sophisticated pianist Semprini was such a wild ladies’ man. There is a wonderful story about a showbiz landlady with the punchline “Oh, Mr Sanders, what must you think of me!”

I remember staying at the legendary Mrs Hoey’s theatrical digs in Manchester where there were no sexual shenanigans, but getting breakfast in the morning involved choosing from a roll-call of every type of egg available since the dawn of time and she and her husband (a scene hand at BBC Manchester) used to go on holidays to Crossmaglen, one of the most dangerous places in Ireland during the then Troubles.

Mrs Hoey’s was impeccably clean, but I had not heard the story – told in The Story of Variety – that you could guess in advance if a theatrical bed-&-breakfast place was not of the best if a previous act staying there had written “…quoth the Raven” in the visitors’ book.

I had also never heard the story of young English comic Des O’Connor’s first time playing the notorious Glasgow Empire where they famously hated all English acts. He went so badly on his first nightly performance that he figured the only thing he could do was pretend to faint, which he did and got carted off to the Royal Infirmary.

Old-style variety was much like modern-day comedy in that, as the documentary says: “You couldn’t be in Variety and be in elite company. It just wasn’t done. But, if you became a very big star, you could mix with kings and princes.”

Except kings and princes are thin on the ground nowadays and have been replaced by other gliterati.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade is wonderful stuff for anyone interested in showbiz and bizarre acts. Ken Dodd talks of the old Variety theatres having “a smell of oranges and cigars”. In Ashton-under-Lyme, the performers had to hang their shoes up in the dressing rooms because of the rats.

But after-screening anecdotes and opinions were as interesting as what was in the documentary.

I had never spotted, until Michael Grade mentioned it to Barry Cryer after the screening, that now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Hylda Baker’s stage persona was actually an almost direct copy of now-forgotten-but-once-popular comic Jimmy James. Like the sleight-of-hand in a good magic act, once you know it you can see it.

I was vaguely aware that Eric Morecambe’s famous catchphrase “Look at me when I‘m talking to you” was actually lifted from ventriloquist Arthur Worsley’s act – the dummy Charlie Brown used to say it to Worsley. (Eric freely admitted where he had got the line from.)

Most interestingly, Michael Grade said he would not have commissioned ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent series (which he likes) because he wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to get so many interesting acts.

But bizarre and interesting variety acts have always been and are always out there. I know from personal experience, looking for Gong Show style TV acts, that you just have to put an ad in The Stage newspaper on three consecutive weeks and they spill out like a tsurreal tsunami. A combination of real-people adding interest to their drab lives in godforsaken towns and suburbs around the UK… and struggling professionals who in previous times might have played clubs but who now often play street theatre.

The Story of Variety with Michael Grade comes to the conclusion that live Variety was killed off in the mid-to-late-1950s by a combination of television, scheduling rock stars in Variety stage shows (which split the audience into two groups, neither of which were fully satisfied) and adding strippers (which destroyed the appeal for family audiences). But this did not kill off the acts, merely the places they were showcased. Sunday Night at the London Palladium thrived on ITV in the 1950s and 1960s.

Michael Grade was wrong.

There are loads of good variety acts playing the Piazza in London’s Covent Garden every week and there is a third tier to the annual Edinburgh Fringe, which no-one ever seems to mention. There are the paid-for Fringe venues… plus the two organisations offering free venues… plus the free street theatre with which Edinburgh is awash throughout August.

And Variety is not dead elsewhere. Mr Methane still farts around the UK; Charlie Chuck is more speciality/spesh act than stand-up, The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper doubles as The Great Voltini and the ratings success of Britain’s Got Talent on ITV1 and The Magicians on BBC1 show that there are not just loads of good spesh acts out there but that there is an appetite for them.

Now, what was the name of that bloke who used to torture teddy bears on a wheel of death at Malcolm Hardee’s old clubs The Tunnel Palladium and Up The Creek?

Was it Steve someone?

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