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Variety shows were once all the rage – make or break performances where talent was snapped up and audiences were left almost bewildered and stunned by the wonderful trinity of lights, noise and action. Things have changed. Today their most public outing is Britain’s Got Talent, a cynical show that allows women singing Phantom of the Opera in the style of a dog and a flatulent man called Mr Methane to ridicule themselves in front of an audience that may well be confused, but only at whether the word “Talent” is actually a codeword for “Problems” that had accidentally been left in during a late night production meeting. Thankfully there is still someone out there that “gets” the power of a proper variety show, and his name (or at least his stage one) is Mat Ricardo.
Ricardo is known by the strange moniker of “The Derren Brown of Juggling” and whilst there weren’t any instances of convincing us that the apocalypse had arrived by throwing some coloured balls in the air, the patter is as polished as any practised showman and his tricks (especially one involving juggling bowling balls in the air) do have a definite element of theatricality to them. It’s all very professional and snappy, and gears the audience towards what’s to come, as any good compère should.
And what is to come is anyone’s guess, as each monthly instalment, as is the nature of variety shows, has a completely different mix of entertainers and comedians. On this occasion we were treated to comedy musician Elliot Mason bemoaning us in strained tones on the rebranding of Jif to Cif and Magic Circle member and award winning magician Pete Wardell confounding us with illusions in the first half alone. The real highlight of the night however was undoubtedly the headliner The Boy With Tape On His Face, who, although running through some old material, still brought the house down with his style of mimed comedy and witty household props, especially due to many of his invited audience member guests being partially inebriated by this point in the night.
In-between the magic and the miming, Ricardo turns Parkinson and interviews a celebrity performer of some sort on stage. On this occasion, his guest was comedian and intermittent pub landlord Al Murray. Whilst it was interesting to learn that Murray can do an exceptional sound effect of a car boot opening and that he used to know Stewart Lee from his time studying at Oxford University, amongst all the hilarity and kookiness of the rest of the show the slow talk show pace doesn’t quite fit in. It also means that the special guest doesn’t actually perform anything in the show, which if anything just feels like a missed opportunity when the guests are generally from show business.
The success of a variety show resolutely depends on the combined quality of talent throughout the night and here The Mat Ricardo Show fared very well, with The Boy With Tape On His Face sharply bringing up the average. In the end it’s a polished, enjoyable tour de force with the occasional dip, but a damn sight more talent on offer than anything Simon Cowell’s produced in years.