|Photo: Jo Lewis|
I once fell flat on my face – literally flat on my stupid face – in front of 9000 people. It was the closing moments of a big German variety festival, and I was taking my final bow. I bounced up the steps to the stage and just caught the tip of my foot on the top step. WHAP. Down I went. The host’s words ringing in my ears, “Ladies and gentlemen, one more time for the gentleman juggler, the hilarious, Mr Mat Ricar..Oh..Oh dear..”. Now, obviously this hurt, both physically and, more importantly, emotionally. But what was the aspect that made me stick out my bottom lip and sulk for the rest of the night? Was it the sizeable gash on my knee where I’d sliced it across the edge of the step? Was it the knowledge that 9000 people had seen my self-esteem plummet through the floor?
No. It was that I had ruined my favourite suit. Chester Barrie, Savile Row. Green windowpane. Fitted like a glove, hung like a beaut and made me feel like a million dollars. I looked down at my beautiful trousers and all I could see was a ragged tear that from thigh nearly to ankle, and worse, blood all over it. That was a sad day.
I didn't always wear suits. I first started performing when I was teenage and impressionable. My influences were the jugglers in circuses or mid 80's street performers, so in the first couple of years of my career my choice of costume was mainly made dependent on the amount of sequins you could squeeze onto it. Then, as my tastes moved to American comedy, my style moved into the Hawaiian shirt phase, often paired with chinos and converse all-stars. Don't judge me too harshly, remember this was the 80's, Ok, no excuses, judge me harshly.
But then as I matured and began to take my chosen profession more seriously, I started to spend more time researching my forebears, the previous generations of music hall and vaudeville performers who paved the way for me. I was a juggler, so perhaps it was time to see what other jugglers throughout history did, what they looked like, and more importantly what they wore. And what I found went on to be one of my most important influences, both on stage and off.
In the heyday of variety, vaudeville and music-hall, there was a breed of performer known as the “Gentleman Juggler”, and they were great. They were immaculately groomed. Dressed in well-tailored suits, silver cuff-links, dress shoes, silk ties. They would have their stage set as a bar or a restaurant – somewhere that a gentleman of the time might go for a ravishing night out. They would saunter on, perhaps removing a top hat and throwing it casually across the stage to land on a hantstand, and they would spend the next few minutes performing stunning displays of balance, dexterity and co-ordination with the things a gentleman might find in the aforementioned bar or restaurant.
They'd juggle fine bone china and furniture, spin bowls of soup on forks, flip spoons into glasses.. and the classic tablecloth-pull trick (and the one that I twisted into one of my signature pieces)? They invented it.
They were dashing, handsome and stylish, and more than that – they were headliners.
They exuded none of the fast, sweaty, attention seeking manner that plagued most jugglers. What they did wasn't showing-off, it was cool. They didn't do lame lines and old gags, they were slick and witty. And I wanted in.
It took years to perfect the feats of dexterity that would form the backbone of my act, but the work had begun. Something I could change right now, though, was how I looked. How I presented myself.
At that time, most of my work was as a street performer, and wearing a suit and tie changed everything for me. It made me feel more stylish, sure, and yes, more confident, but also more accomplished? Is that the right word? Maybe. It made me feel of more worth. As a street performer this was particularly important to me. I'd be on the train going to knock out some shows at Covent Garden, confident that nobody on the train would guess by looking at me, that I was a busker. Not that I was ashamed of it – quite the reverse – most of what I know about performing I learnt on the street, and I'm nothing but proud of my years there, but it was nice to be dodging peoples preconceptions so deftly, especially when most peoples preconceptions of street performers are so wrong.
Once, in my pre-suit days, while hanging around under the church portico that forms the wings to the stage of Covent Garden Piazza, I was asked by a tourist if I was a street performer, I told them I was, they then asked me to point to where I sleep at night. The unpleasant assumption that a busker must be homeless wouldn't have occurred had I been wearing a suit and tie, I think.
I was dressing for the job I wanted, not the one I had. And in doing so, gaining potential audience members confidences. Getting a crowd on the street is much easier if you look trustworthy, and for good or for bad (and despite life lessons from smooth bad guys in movies, Nazis, and bankers), people still do associate a good suit with trust.
So these days my career is a little healthier and my stages tend to be in theatres and cabaret clubs, where people have paid before the show rather than by putting some money in a hat at the end, and this means, of course, that my menswear obsession has gained momentum.
There isn't a men’s vintage clothes shop in London I don't know, and as my knowledge and understanding of the delicious nuances of a good suit increases, so does the wardrobe space needed to house them. My first one man show was even titled “Three Balls and a Good Suit” after my claim that all I need are those things.
And the suits affect my performance more than I ever thought they would.
I have a grey plaid single-breasted that I bought from a tailors on a trip to Venice. I picked it off the rack, put it on, and stood there as a small gaggle of chirping, well-perfumed, middle-aged Italian ladies flitted around me pulling, smoothing, measuring and chalking. I left the shop, had a pizza, did a show, and came back to find my suit altered to fit me perfectly. They gave it to me in crepe paper, folded correctly and tied up with a bow. That was a happy trip.
It's a light cloth, and a good fit, but being Italian, it has a loose hang and moves a little around me when I move. So I love to use it for my hat and cane routine, which is dance-influenced. When I wear it, it helps me feel like I can move well. It helps the act, for sure.
If I'm doing a club spot, something more stand-up comedy based, then I might wear the suit I'm wearing now. Second hand, Savile Row, heavy wool, brown and green check. It has a little label hidden away inside that says “Thorn proof”. It's like a suit of armour. And that's how it makes me feel – protected, safe. It's warm, comforting, tough and hard-wearing, like an East-End pub. And because it has the kind of structured Savile Row cut where the jacket gently holds you at the ribs, like someone encouraging you to stand upright and have slightly better posture. I feel bulletproof in it. It makes me a better comedian. And it was an incredible bargain at £100.
More than individual acts though, I wear suits for two reasons. Firstly, I bloody love suits, so there's that, but secondly, I've somehow managed to squeeze a successful career out of stupid jokes and manual dexterity, it's ridiculous when you think about it -an don't think for a secon that I'm not very grateful that somehow I pay my mortgage from attention-seeking and showing-off. So here's the thing: I think there's something quite wonderful about dressing like a grown-up to do something childish.
Mat Ricardo premières his new one-man show "Vaudeville Schmuck" in Cambridge and London in July, before taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe for all of August. Full details here.
He'd love you to come.