Comedy Store's 30th Anniversary Charity Gala

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

The bill boasted Jack Dee, Jimmy Carr, Paul Merton, Phill Jupitus and Alan Carr – but the biggest star of the night was the darkened basement we were sitting in: The Comedy Store, celebrating its 30th birthday with a packed line up of acts past and present.

‘The best comedy club in the world,’ several of the comedians called it, and it would be hard to take issue. Pretty much everything the Store does, it does right – which explains why it’s been around so long.

Its current home, purpose built in 1993 as the perfect comedy venue, is a long way from the room above Don Ward’s Soho strip club where it all began. But then comedy’s come a long way from those ramshackle, anarchic days, when there were just half a dozen or ‘alternative cabaret’ nights scattered around London.

It was an omission that last night’s line-up didn’t include more of the performers from those pioneering days. The Store’s original compere, Alexei Sayle, would have been a coup, as would his successor, Ben Elton – although he probably doesn’t do anything these days without an Andrew Lloyd-Webber soundtrack and a fee bigger than an MP’s expenses claim. But maybe an Arnold Brown or a Clive Anderson to add to the reminisces about those early days would have been a nice touch.

In the event, that job was left in the more-than capable hands of Paul Merton, opening the show with his policeman-on-acid routine which he first performed at the club in 1982 He’s still a regular, appearing alongside his fellow Comedy Store Players most Sundays, and he explained the significance of the venue’s opening to aspiring comedians back in those days. ‘When I was young there was nowhere to go other than Butlin’s, the working men’s clubs or Oxbridge,’ he said. ‘The Comedy Store democratised all that.

Over three thirds, compered by Sean Meo, John Moloney and Paul Thorne, we cracked through 16 acts, all male - not a good message - and all performing a tight seven minutes. A Comedy Store gig is always a precise measure of a comedian’s form – those on top of their game should storm it, while weaknesses are magnified too – and tonight was no exception.

Good news, then, for Rhod Gilbert, who eclipsed some of the more famous names with his vein-popping rant about duvets and million-candle torches dazzling with its escalating fury at marketing drivel. Same, too, for Phil Nichol whose maniacal tomfoolery energises any crowd – especially when topped off, as tonight, by a typically furious rendition of Only Gay Eskimo.

Many Store favourites came out to do their thing: playful crowd bating from Stephen K Amos, entertainingly self-righteous sneering from Marcus Brigstocke, sharp, edgy gags from Ian Stone and cartoony character work from Paul Tonkinson, playing with the North-South divide – both in England and in London. Something for every taste, and most of these sets gaining in potency from being condensed into such short slots.

Jack Whitehall – the newest act on the bill by some margin – produced a solid observational set, although his morphing into a more animated Michael McIntyre is now almost 100 per cent complete.

The presence of celebrity always sends a spark through a room, which Alan Carr played skilfully with his screamingly camp comments on such mundanities as giant hoop earrings, bendy buses and gyms. Lee Mack played the cheery northerner with usual aplomb – not letting a little thing like wording a gag wrongly put him off. Jimmy Carr read off a selection of brutally efficient one-liners (including a corker about Hollyoakes) as his wont. And Jack Dee reminisced about his comic epiphany at the Store all those years ago, when he stumbled across his miserable persona, while proving that he’s still got it with a short but hilarious whinge about life.

Midway through the night, Phill Jupitus introduced Don Ward, the man who set up the Store with insurance salesman Peter Rosengard after trips to Los Angeles convinced them they could import the US stand-up scene to London. Now he runs it alone and it’s his club, his rules – so the seven-minute one went out the window for his 20-odd minutes of thank-yous and reminiscences, including the oft-told one about the time Robin Williams popped in to do five minutes, and stayed for 45. Everyone had too much respect to yank him off stage… and likewise with Ward tonight.

The Comedy Store gamble paid off, and now the vibrant, diverse UK comedy scene puts the Americans to shame. But not everything changed. Mainstream ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, getting laughs from insinuating someone is gay and giving them a camp voice, probably wasn’t what those alternative variety pioneers saw as the future of the Comedy Store. But, man, the guy’s a consummate crowdpleaser, and he certainly gives the audience what they want with great style. Talking of mainstream, Andy Askins – like Rhod Gilbert one of the acts the Comedy Store now manages – changed some lyrics of some songs as he strummed away with cheery misery.

Closing the night was Terry Alderton, with a thoroughly twisted act, manically mashing up audience banter, impressive rap skills, the vocalising of the voices in his head and a strange bit of business with a Superman outfit. Bizarre and intriguing stuff, a long way from the tired act he was doing when Chortle reviewed him a few years back – an artificially-enhanced tale of coming back drunk with a kebab. It proves that comedians – like comedy itself – are capable of reinvention; something beyond most of the old order that the Comedy Store and its like swept away three decades ago.

And that spirit of creativity will be the lasting legacy of this historic venture. Here’s to another 30 years, and beyond.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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Published: 1 Jan 2009

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