— Showman, Mat Ricardo (UK) —
Mat Ricardo is a juggler. There is barely a minute when he does not remind the audience of this fact. Odd, then, that his first trick is to drop a cigar box he’s trying to juggle. But Ricardo knows exactly how to deal with this: make light, explain that it’s an inevitable part of a live juggling performance. “In any other art form that would be game over,” he explains, “only a juggler can attempt a trick, fail, try again and have the audience love him even more.” So convincing is he in styling it out that this fumble actually seems planned, an integral opening to the performance.
His inter-trick patter is full of this kind of frankness, and explanations of how difficult the next trick is going to be. He exposes the usually unspoken rules of performing and uses chatty interludes to build and build suspense before the more impossible feats of dexterity. In ratcheting up the tension before attempting to catch a bowling ball on his neck it really does feel as though there’s a sense of threat to him and to us, continually warning people in the front rows. But is it just showmanship? Maybe it doesn’t matter – the knots in my stomach were real enough.
Ricardo is alternately self aggrandising (“this took 5 years to learn”) and self deprecating (“I could’ve been a doctor instead”). He has a sharp wit, tossing out little quips so fast that they fly right over our heads – by the time I can digest how funny he is, he’s moved on to another amazing trick.
Showman is a deconstructed routine: the traditional elements are there, like his smart suit and waistcoat, and we get a potted history of juggling, but he’s continually commenting on the performance, and on the art of performance, as he performs.
He draws attention to us as an audience and second guesses our instinctive reactions. In watching live performance there is (in my mind at least) an element of slightly wanting him to fail, and then the satisfying glint of schadenfreude when he does. But why? Why this niggling desire to see someone fail at something they can do very well? Maybe it offers proof that these tricks are hard, or confirms that Ricardo is indeed human, maybe it offers a reassuring focus on the liveness of the act – here is a man doing things that seem impossible as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. If The Prestige has taught us anything it’s to make the trick look hard. Make it look too easy and the audience won’t care, they won’t see the skill.
Set pieces acted out to some well chosen songs make the show seem less bitty. The patter ceases and manual talent takes over. Showman climaxes stunningly with a bottle juggle set to Mack the Knife. As Sinatra pays tribute to his inimitable predecessors through song, so does Ricardo through juggling. Rising key changes blend thrillingly with the mesmerising blur of these bottles. It’s flawless.
£18 does not buy us the right to see someone risk their life, Ricardo claims. One of the three electric carving knives he’s about to juggle slices effortlessly through a Britain’s Got Talent application form: it seems real enough. So is he at risk here? And, if he is, then why does he put himself in this situation? It’s this combination of masterful technical skill and the knife edge he walks between reassurance and threat that thrusts Showman above the tacky ostentation of a street performer or the childish buffoonery of a circus clown. Ricardo has balls, and he knows how to use them.
Southbank Centre until 21 January.