The Establishment Club

Steve Bennett at the revival of Peter Cook's legendary club

Hillsborough, Levenson, MPs’ expenses – trust is failing in the institutional pillars of British society. But never fear, Keith Allen has a solution for the cancer at the heart of public life…

…a Soho private members club for all his media pals.

It might be a cockeyed idea of revolution, but the spin-off is that he’s chosen to model it on The Establishment – Peter Cook’s groundbreaking, if short-lived, satirical club of the Sixties that predated the modern stand-up scene by decades.

And we shouldn’t get too precious about the aims: Cook was rather more keen on getting pissed with his cliquey chums than bringing down the government he mocked.

Allen might be Cook’s successor in the hedonistic stakes, if not the comic genius one. Nonetheless, his vision of challenging the status quo extends to comedy. In the manifesto he outlines tonight, he proposes an alternative to the career-minded ‘nice lads mentioning things’ brand of stand-up that so dominates TV.

It’s not an original idea. Anyone who follows live comedy will be aware of the growing schism between that style and a more creative, alternative approach – as evidenced by the eclectic shortlist of this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award.

Still, these two late-night shows in Ronnie Scott’s prestigious jazz club make a statement of intent: that a revived Establishment club, with the blessing of Cook’s widow Lin, wants to be as classy and glamorous as the original.

Allen is by no means a natural compere. He forgets names, inflicts unfunny songs on the audience and tends to ramble, and his material tends to be more nasty than edgy. Yet it works, in a strange kind of way: he antagonises the room in a way that encourages sharp heckles, and binds everyone together, us against him. And he rolls with the flow, insulting those who interrupt but without any real venom.

First up, Paul Sinha epitomised the sort of comedian the club should be seeking out: thoughtful, political and with no shortage of smart, knowing punchlines. He needs the audience to listen, but rewards them with richer laughs as he unfurls his many-stranded narrative about meeting the two-faced Jim Davidson that manages to score points while remaining self-effacing about his own intellectual and emotional shortcomings.

He was followed by Ophelia Bitz, a fairly typical bawdy cabaret act, singing lascivious lyrics with gusto, even if they’re hardly the peak of wit: ‘There’s nothing shocking about rimming or docking,’ goes a typical line in a song about accepting sexual practices. This might have been scandalous in the original Establishment days, but now seems an insipid list of rude words she knows.

Bitz was introduced as a pornographer, and indeed her set included an X-rated compilation from her sizeable collection of pre-VHS erotica. The muted reaction to an unsolicited montage of muffdiving, said it all: we’re neither offended, nor particularly care for it. What does a girl have to do to get a shock reaction these days?

Talking of rhetorical questions: What cabaret night is complete without an appearance by a former British ambassador? Craig Murray, our former man in Uzbekistan, fulfilled the political agenda of the night in his discussion with Allen. Murray did fine work in whistle-blowing about the torture and extraordinary rendition that happened on his patch, even if he left the embassy under a cloud of allegations he’d granted visas for sexual favours.

Conspiracy, he cries – it’s the same way that Julian Assange was accused of rape, to smear his reputation and open the door to him being taken to America. Some of Murray’s claims could have been challenged more by the fawning Allen – but the raising of questions, whether founded or not, adds a unusual and interesting edge to the night.

From that to an incredible blast of charismatic, passionate and energetic retro-rock. The mod-like Strypes, from Cavan in Ireland sing like The Beatles and thrash their guitars like The Who, whose My Generation they covered with a compelling, raunchy vigour to match the original. The stand-out stars of the night, they have all that’s needed to be playing stadiums within five years. Oh, it should probably be mentioned that they are still just 14. Sublime stuff.

The same adjective could be applied to the mesmerising Dickie Beau, though his style could hardly be more different. He takes to the stage in whiteface makeup, and vivid red-pigtails to match his Dorothy dress, before miming to an incredibly intense interview given by Judy Garland, in which she leaps between defiance, self-pity and drunken ramblings about the insignificance of other people. It’s a compelling tape, made into art by Beau, who jerks and jolts around the stage as if a marionette controlled by an unseen hand. How very symbolic. It’s an astonishing bit of cabaret – and a crime that the Allen neglected to properly introduce this awesome piece. So that name again: Dickie Beau.

Comic Lee Kern then came to the stage with his PowerPoint presentation of sarcastic tweets he’s sent in reply to celebrities’ vacuous updates. It doesn’t sound an amazing idea, and indeed occasionally got stuck into a rut of snide sniping. Yet he also has enough flourishes – such as his escapades in ex-cage-fighter Alex Reid’s chatrooms – to elevate it above the premise.

Finally, the provocative Scott Capurro, comedy’s answer to The Innocence Of Muslims. He likes the frisson he creates, he says, as he purses out bitterly unpleasant things about Mohammed, the Chinese, women, his own family and just about every group you can imagine. There’s certainly nervous laughter at this, mixed with the gasps and the occasional guilty guffaws. It’s naughty and by no means nice, and far from easy listening – and certainly not the sort of stuff that you’d hear on those panel shows, at least not since Frankie Boyle left Mock The Week. Yet if such uncompromising defiance in the face of an audience that don’t quite know what to make of him isn’t in the spirit of the Establishment, I don’t know what is.

Published: 21 Sep 2012

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