Back in the day, when I first moved to London full of hopes, dreams and naivety, I would often go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon. From memory, there would always be a good crowd – tourists mainly, but it didn’t take long to start noticing the odd familiar face. Some would argue with the more voluble, flamboyant speakers, while most (including myself) would just observe. One man in particular caught my eye, since he would be there week in, week out, stood on a blue milk crate with a cardboard placard tied around his neck. Written on it were the words ‘It’s going to get worse’.
Often, I wondered whether I should go up and talk to him. No-one else ever seemed to and I suppose I felt a bit sorry for him.
At the same time, I felt a bit sorry for myself. Perhaps I was drawn to that man because he symbolised how I saw myself at that moment: adrift, on my own, a bit cut-off from everyone and everything. I’d recently left university and, I suppose, thought life would always be like that. Yet here I was in the big city, without my network of family and friends, having to ‘start again’ and not really knowing how to.
Slowly, but surely, I made new friends. But I never forgot that feeling of disconnection – made worse by the sheer volume of people traipsing around the capital’s streets and ramming themselves into its trains and buses – and how I had to dig deep to overcome it. Just walking into a pub on my own: I don’t think I’d ever done that before. I’m sure some people do it without even thinking about it, but my suspicion is that, where most of us are concerned, the weight of self-consciousness sits on our shoulders.
But imagine that weight being so heavy that it cripples you. Imagine just how debilitating that might be to someone who suffers from mental health issues, who might already be isolated from society but who just cannot bring themselves to walk through the door of wherever it is they want to go.
It’s a vicious circle, but one that can be broken. In fact, it can be smashed to bits. For the first time in its four-year history, the Orb’s Christmas cabaret featured more clients on the stage than volunteers. People who once upon a time, not too long ago, found it hard to walk through a door into a roomful of strangers can now not only do that, but get up on stage and perform as well.
“The whole idea of everything we do at Orb is that we want it to be about the clients – the people who come here, people with severe and enduring mental ill-health, to try and help them build their confidence, do something creative, learn new skills and really feel a part of the community,” says Orb director Leon Fijalkowski.
And what a performance! But first of all, we must give due respect to the support act, the Tuesday Night Jam Band, who broke with convention (since this was a Wednesday afternoon) and who, led by bandleader Andy, helped get everyone in the mood. A melange of reggae, blues and righteous bongos delivered by players wearing all the right accoutrements – a feathered hat here, a flashing Rudolph nose there, not to mention a beard fashioned from bows of holly. Imagine opening your front door expecting carol singers and finding the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band standing there instead.
Then to the Cabaret itself: an all-singing and dancing extravaganza, but also a parable of triumph through adversity (with a nod to Jack and the Beanstalk) as the machinations between the Wizard and the Ice Queen stopped a dainty rose from growing. Was there a metaphor in there? What’s for certain is that Frankie Sinatra and Debbie Harry also cropped up, along with life coaching tips from one of those OTT American guru dudes and an old hippy (is there any other kind?)
Look, if I was an arch critic and this was a professional cabaret, I would want to use the word ‘shambolic’ but I’m not and it wasn’t. So instead, then, let’s redefine that word – or, rather, make it less pejorative. If it was shambolic, then that was only because Mike, Jon, Mandy, Suzy, Christina, Phil and David were spontaneous, hilarious (see Mark’s Christmas message!) joyful and completely free from self-consciousness. They had clearly worked hard on it, yet at the same time they appeared not to give a jot. Of course, this point is a very important one in the context. It’s how the best art and performance is, and it’s how life should be more often than it is.
“Everyone in the building knows each other. They’re all friends, they’re all familiar, it gives them a safe, celebratory space to get up on stage and perform the cabaret or the music they’ve been performing, to give them the confidence to go that extra step,” Leon explains.
“This is the fourth cabaret performance and people who, say two years ago, wouldn’t have had the confidence to take part are now going up on stage and doing that.
“The confidence and personal belief it takes to get up on stage in front of a bunch of people for anybody is really difficult. For somebody who is struggling with poor mental health, or various issues, you can imagine how much more difficult that is.
“Events like this make that possible. It gives people the chance to be themselves, to show what they can do.”
The moral of the story was that ‘the flower that grows in adversity is the most powerful and beautiful flower of all’. Winter might be here, but the flowers stay in full bloom at the Orb.
Back to my old mate in Hyde Park. It’s going to get worse? Well, if you’re alluding to how a constant media ‘drip drip’ infects and affects the human psyche, then I take your point, sir. But more generally? I beg to differ.