I sit here, chastised, after trying to prove to myself that I could still juggle using eggs filled with jelly beans. I can’t. I need (years of) practice. I sense Mat Ricardo has done his share of picking jelly beans out of the furniture, or at least, his long-suffering wife and mother have. A reinvention of the gentleman juggler, Ricardo is a veteran of street performing, cruise ships and cabarets around the world – he’s even been to Greenland twice, on purpose.
Watching Mat Ricardo do his thing with some balls in his nice suit was at times exciting – the tension ratcheted through balancing acts with dandy-esque props: cigar boxes; cigars; derby hats and a cane. These feats of daring were sprinkled around the story of honing one’s craft, a self-narrative detailing what happens when you go against the depressing advice of a computer-generated job match to become not an undertaker, but a skilful entertainer. The character of Mat Ricardo is empathetically truthful, heart-warmingly endearing through such openness in his stories. But it is this honesty which attempts, less successfully, to separate the exultation of the performer from the art, when they are inevitably knitted together. A self-proclaimed rant about ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ seemed to highlight this – the artist that shuns TV is to be applauded in this age of talent commercialisation, but using it as material only serves to reinforce the point that TV wants the artist, striking notes of false modesty. Juggling and trickery in an audience-less vacuum would be pointless and underwhelming; a performer doesn’t need to get acceptance, adoration and appreciation from BGT, but it’s probably got to come from somewhere.
Encapsulating a life fully-lived is the perpetual dilemma for artists, and this idea transcended Ricardo’s monologue; in fact, the story was more poignant when reading between the cracks - here, vulnerability showed through, fighting and justifying life against the tide of 9-5, cookie-cutter modern Britain. Within these spaces, Ricardo truly won us over. Weaving tales of rock star gentleman jugglers W.C. Fields and Enrico Rastelli with his own upbringing in North London, we were exposed to the yearning for artistic integrity and unspoiled awe of a bygone era and audience.
It’s not easy to play to a small crowd – it must be disappointing and unnerving; although we took a while to warm up, Ricardo trusted us enough to try something ‘subtle’ with his performance. Subtlety, I suspect, is what ensures the continued life of shows like this, and nuance is perhaps a lost art in itself. The point, as Ricardo eloquently stated at the end of the show, is to get the audience to realise how rare it is to say, ‘I never saw anything like that before’. It was nice to be amazed by subtlety, to appreciate things past brought to life again. Perhaps Ricardo is on to something with his cabaret format. This is life outside the box, or balls, as it were.