PART ONE: Pushing Boundaries

Every now and again it’s a good idea to take on a big challenge. More than any other year in my career, 2017 has been about that. The beginning of any year is usually rooted in the one previous, but this adventure trails all the way back to 1990.

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HOLIDAYS IN BLACKPOOL

Ever since I was 5 years old I’ve loved Blackpool. I loved it then and I love it now.
Walking around this seaside tourist mecca wide eyed at the sight of billboards featuring comedians and variety entertainers taught me that ‘show business’ was glamorous and exciting. I remember these shows solely by the advertising because as far as I can remember we never went to see them. My parents weren’t (and aren’t) really into seeing live shows and so, as a child neither was I.

 Almost every well known face in television has done a ‘summer season’ in Blackpool. Morecambe & Wise, Tommy Cooper, Cilla Black, Joe Longthorne, the list is endless and it stretches back over 100 years.

Once during a windy afternoon on North Pier I saw the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ unloading their van into the theatre when a passerby shouted ‘to me, to you’. The Chuckle’s laughed, the man laughed, everybody laughed. It occurs to me now that having heard it 10000 times, Paul and Barry probably didn’t find it that funny, but they laughed and it gave us all a good story.

THE VENUE

In 2011, two friends and business partners decided to look for a venue to host their nightly entertainment show. Having being a resident show in a few places around Blackpool they were looking for a place they could run on their own terms. I can’t profess to know the ins and outs of their story, only where it intersects with mine, which just happens to be one day in early 2011.

Martin told me they were turning the old Mecca Bingo on Blackpool promenade into a Vegas styled showroom, with nightly entertainment, a bar, a restaurant and all the trimmings. It seemed ambitious, but these guys had a great track record and I believed them. If anything I wondered why they were telling me.

Even to this day, the vision these guys had blows my mind. Little did I know that just a few years later I’d be having my wedding in that very same spot. By then it would be called ‘Viva’ and it was already doing great business.

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Back when we first met, Leye was the outrageous, hilarious host and star at the Liberty Hotel’s Alabama Showbar. Martin was the guy who made it all work, in pretty much every respect. It had been a few years since we’d last spoken but they knew what I did and wondered if I had something I could add to the mix while they were putting together their nightly entertainment schedule.

I had some ideas but looking back I don’t think I was ready, not for this. Perhaps they sensed this too, because after that, nothing happened.

Five years went by. They went from strength to strength and branched out in ways nobody could have imagined. They silenced the doubters and created waves in Blackpool’s entertainment landscape. They packed houses and they put on fantastic shows. They did it all on their own terms and they did it with humility and style. Something of which to be extremely proud.

WHAT GOES AROUND…

In those five years, I’d been working pretty hard too. I’d performed across the world on cruise ships and in venues from here to the USA. I’d started getting booked to warm up audiences for TV shows and tried everything I could to find and refine my act. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t all go well, but I learned lessons along the way. I was delighted 5 years later when that opportunity ‘came back around’ and Martin called again.

This time when they asked me if I could add to their brand, my answer was a confident ‘YES!’.

“It’ll be a two hour show, the first half will be comedy magic, and the second half will be a trip to the old circus sideshow, I’ll call you back in half an hour” I said.

I already had my head in my notebook. I knew what I was looking for.

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With this picture in front of me, I called Martin back, I told him the idea for what would later become ‘Sideshow Tricks’. He said ‘let’s do it’ and the work began.

WRITING THE SHOW

I began to write and preview material from the show wherever I could. I put on shows in smaller venues from Bristol to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Here are the goals/challenges I set – 

1/ It has to last at least 2 hours long.

2/ It must have a story arc rather than just being trick after trick.

3/ I will be the only performer.

4/ It must contain a wide variety of things.

5/ The second half must look and feel different to the first.

6/ It needs to ‘feel like a show’ rather than an act.

Every single thing on that list worried me.

The solutions was one that would tick a few of my boxes at once. I would split the show into two distinct halves, with a different theme that would be noticed without being jarring. I would have a ‘set’ that changed at the interval, so that the audience would be aware of this change and intrigued before I entered the stage for the second half.

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Now we move to story arc. The arc of this show is telling the audience about performers.

In the first half I tell them them about me. In the second tell them about other performers who influenced me. First they find out who I am, then they find out why.

The final challenge is the ‘wide variety of things’. Fortunately I’m a ‘variety’ act, so it should be easy. Except it isn’t. This show is 110 minutes long. By usual averages and reckoning, that’s about 17-18 ‘routines’.

If you don’t mind 18 card tricks you’re done. Except I do. Everybody does. So I’m limiting myself to two card tricks and it’s off to the drawing board.
I start by writing down every bit of material I’ve ever done, then making a list of everything I’ve ever considered doing.

The second half comes together easily because of the tight parameters. It has to be relevant to sideshow. It turns out it’s easier to be creative once you have limitations.
If a menu has 5000 things on it, it’s almost impossible to choose what you want to eat.

The first half is immediately looking like my regular touring one hour show. Except I don’t want that. It has to be a show, not an act. It needs to be biographical yet still interesting. When you’re famous everyone cares about your life and struggle. When you’re not (and I’m not) they don’t. So the stories have to be good.

I set about re writing some of my current tricks, then working on a few new ones. I decide that I’m going to abandon the usual tactic of saying anything for a laugh and focus only on what is actually true. If my granddad wasn’t a magician, I’m not going to pretend he was for jokes.

 If I can still find comedy, I’ve got something.
If I can find comedy and tragedy, I’ve got something special.

TRYING IT OUT

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After a few months I’d written the show. 17 items in total, a set that changes in the interval, two suits and a whole lot of expectation.  On 24th of March I tried 75% of the show for the first time as a whole. Until then it’d just been single routines dropped into my usual set where they were protected by stronger material on either side of them.
It worked! Just about. Two months later we were to open at Viva.

Then I encountered the next problem…..apparently we need an audience.

THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE. Part two will talk about building an audience, advertising and how it all actually went.

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