It's good to be back! Inside the UK's first comedy club gig for four months | Manchester's Frog & Bucket has hosted a socially-distanced pilot. Steve Bennett was there © Carla Speight

It's good to be back! Inside the UK's first comedy club gig for four months

Manchester's Frog & Bucket has hosted a socially-distanced pilot. Steve Bennett was there

Are you ready for some comedy! Then please read and agree to  this government-mandated 21-point health and safety briefing…

That’s what punters attending the first indoor live comedy gig in four months had been sent before last night’s pilot show. But in a time when official Covid rules are so often confusing, Manchester’s Frog and Bucket was very explicit: ‘Laughing, clapping and standing ovations are allowed,’ the document clearly stated. Thank god for that!

Cheering, however, was discouraged – not that the audience got the memo, and their enthusiastic  instinct kept kicking in. Indeed, much of the comedians’ work was to jokingly suppress the audience’s natural response. Heading into the first interval, host Kiri Pritchard-McLean orders: ‘Normally I would say go get a drink, but stay where you are. Unless you need a cig or a piss. Those are the rules, this is how we have fun now.’ 

Socially distanced seating and the one-way system was to be expected; the table service, so long the norm in US clubs, a pleasant improvement. Staff are masked, but not the audience, and there’s hand sanitiser all round.

The good news is that the vibe, certainly in the Frog and Bucket, survived a sparse audience, with 80 punters in a room that usually holds three times as many. 

socially distanced comedy club

Financially, the venue can operate at this capacity, too, with a bit of a assistance from the public purse and the fact that club founder Dave Perkin is the freeholder. Not every venue will be so lucky.

It’s tribute to the determination and ingenuity of Frog boss Jessica Toomey that the Manchester venue was chosen for this first pilot Though what lessons can be implemented from a pilot just three days before indoor venues are allowed to fully open with social distancing remains to be seen - symptomatic, perhaps, of the government’s seat-of-their-pants response to the pandemic. 

Inspectors were supposed to be at last night’s performance, though they didn’t make their presence felt. But without pre-empting the results of a survey the audience were asked to complete, it felt like a success. The gig worked and safety measures held firm.

The yoke of all the regulations and the possible presence of an all-seeing government spy gave the night something of a speakeasy feeling, operating on the verges of legality, which a couple  of the comics played up to, judging the mood perfectly.

Entering the building for the first time, post-pandemic, came with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. Would this be comedy as we remember it? But when that pre-show staple, Let Me Entertain You, came through the speakers, a tingle of nostalgia runs down the spine.

Pritchard-McLean, who worked in the Frog’s office before becoming a stand-up, made clear how excited the comedians were too. ‘Our dream job had been taken away from us,’ she explained. ‘We are all buzzing.’

Pritchard McLean

Her enthusiasm was infectious - hopefully the only thing that was - and her interaction with the two-metres-away front row produced some comedy gold, helped by finding a helicopter accountant with her son. She, and most of the bill,  largely avoided the C-bomb – Covid - though the rituals of lockdown and ‘going feral’ away from the public gaze were fair game. 

Opening act Shazia Mirza spoke about DIY attempts to dye her roots and the Clap For Carers getting competitive, before going into older material about her reality TV appearances. She was understandably rusty on the prepared material, but came to life with some audience interaction, possibly the first face-to-face interaction she’s had in weeks.


 I can’t pretend Mirza is my favourite comedian, but tonight is so much more than individual performance, It wsa a long-overdue reminder of just how fantastic the whole experience of live comedy is, whatever your tastes.

For I’ve never found comedians remotely funny. Or, to rephrase that, I’ve never found comedians funny, remotely, and to be in the moment of a live gig rather than down the tiny barrel of a webcam is a precious thing it perhaps became too easy to take for granted.

The second section featured sharp and cheery everywoman Sian Davies, lamenting the fact that being a lesbian didn’t automatically make her interesting any more, and bemoaning the signs of ageing; and newer act Ola Labib, who revealed she’d only be going for about a year. And of course for a third of that we’ve all been in quarantine. Her set is yet to be honed, but she’s a charming presence with engaging stories, especially of moving from an Islamic school into the mainstream.

Comedian Labib

But the night belonged to effervescently cheerful Stockport housewife Barbara Nice, who’s more of a tonic than hydroxychloroquine will ever be. Though what isn’t?

Known for big audience stunts such as stage-diving, this gregarious, upbeat figure is suddenly the most dangerous act in comedy since she might make physical contact.

She doesn’t but has much playful fun with the threat, She teases the new normal from the very moment she takes to the stage to the strains of ‘from a distance’, and spins the yarn that Boris Johnson summoned her personally for this mission to test out live comedy. ‘Thank you for laughing’ becomes her catchphrase, and after four months you know she means it.

Quite what she was up to with her yarn of wool was baffling, but she had the whole room Bollywood dancing – but not singing, that is verboten – and beaming with delight.

Walking back to to my car with a spring in my step, I cut through a square surrounded by bars. Large, youngish groups chat and mingle excitedly, not a nod to social distancing now it’s near closing time. The comedy club, in comparison, feels so much more Covid secure. To say it’s good to have them back, even in restricted from, is a chronic understatement.

Published: 30 Jul 2020

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