Here in the city, an age-old theatrical tradition flourishes: the theatre of the lost.

There have always been various schools within this theatre, small companies and lone performers, developing different strands of mobile and impromptu performance around the place. Once there were mummers and jesters, fools and freakshows, commedia dell'arte, Punch and Judy. Now the theatre of the lost can be loosely grouped into three strands: comedy, experimental and participatory. Their performances are free, and there are always plenty of them.

The comedy performers are the loudest and their performances usually involve a good deal of alcohol. Opposite Islington Green, two spectacularly dirty performers with wild hair are staging a play by the bus stop, involving a short flight of steps and a balancing trick. The play, if it had a title, might be called 'The Fall'. One actor stands on one leg at the top of the steps, leaning slowly forward while the other actor cheers. Then with a huge yell he tumbles, to wild applause. They're both grinning widely, obviously enjoying it. In the next scene they're joined by a funny-looking old lady wearing odd shoes. One brown and shiny, one grey and laceless. She starts from the top of the steps and the others cheer her on. The audience at the bus stop watch avidly, but they're a miserable bunch: they disappear as soon as the hat comes round.

Further down Upper Street there's an experimental performance in full flow. Most of the experimental performers have refined their art past the point of needing an audience. This one, in striped jester's leggings, sits on a bench all by herself and enacts a complicated mime. Airy gestures describe some kind of figure against the sky for a while, and then she starts nodding frantically and her arms jerk and swing, punching the air like she's on e - but if she is drugged up, ten to one her dealer was a doctor, and her pills are not for fun. Her face is on a different tip entirely to the rest of her, mostly blank, eyes occasionally sliding from side to side, not matching the motions of her body. Maybe it's a very complicated counterpoint. She is as frail as a supermodel, long lank hair with a red slide hanging askew on one side. She could be twenty or fifty. She does not ask for spare change.

Outside the supermarket a girl sat on a bench with her shopping gets her own personal performance from the school of participatory art. With this lot, you are always part of the play whether you like it or not, but there are some superlative performers. This one has a big beaming smile and plenty of patter. Black curly hair, and the smile would be attractive if the teeth were less brown. He's not quite Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation, but he's doing his best: the patter is charming, very coherent. The girl grins reluctantly, and reaches into her pocket with the kind of look most people get when stage comedians pull them out of the audience. She's being a good sport. He leans over and kisses her on the cheek, all gallantry and fearsome aroma. Of course she stiffens, recoils, darts away, but being a professional he doesn't mind. He smiles a professional smile to himself, jangles his full pocket, and strolls off to find another audience.

Thousands of performances every day in the theatre of the lost, and a million actors. They train in doorways, meditating for hours like Zen masters until one day the Muse strikes and they're up and performing furiously in this great theatre - for of course it is a theatre, it's not real. You can tell by the way the audience behaves. If it were real, there'd be a crowd of people standing round the nodding, shaking woman on the bench, trying to find out where she was from, whether she was okay. They'd be trying to find a police officer or a doctor or someone who could help her get back home - if she had one - someone to set her hairslide straight, wash her hair, get her a coat to keep her warm. But it's all only theatre. So the audience stare for a while, like they do with mime artists in Covent Garden or jugglers on the tube, and move on when it gets boringly incomprehensible or the artist starts pulling people out of the audience. They don't want to act, or maybe they can't act. They prefer to remain spectators. And the actors themselves don't want the performance interrupted. Donations are always acceptable, but many of them are escaping from the sort of help which officials and sometimes their own families provide. They wouldn't thank you for interfering.

And so, the show goes on.

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