Laugh Inn, Chester, Opening Night

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

From the outside, it could be Peter Kay’s Phoenix Club, a single neon sign hung on a nondescript building in a semi-industrial part of a Northern town the only indication this is a venue for light entertainment, not light engineering.

Indeed, Chester’s Laugh Inn used to be a working men’s club – but is now Britain’s newest dedicated comedy venue. There have been surprisingly few in recent years, despite the supposed boom in stand-up. Aside from a few refits following the collapse of Jongleurs’ former owners, growth has been in high-end theatre shows and low-end pub gigs. The sort of mid-market activity that gave us the Comedy Stores, Stands, Frog and Buckets, Glees and, indeed, original Jongleurs of the last comedy surge has been notably absent in this one.

The Laugh Inn almost didn’t make it in time for opening night. A planned launch party earlier the week was cancelled as builders worked round-the-clock to get it finished. Even now, tarpaulin obscures the yet-to-be finished balcony.

But what is done looks good. The studio room would be a half-decent venue in its own right; a small stand-up stage in the corner of a sizeable bar. But the main room seats hundreds, even without the balcony – the exact number depending on whether the chairs are cabaret-style around tables, or, as tonight, mostly in rows.

The man behind all this has plans for more Laugh Inns. As a former Comedy Store manager, John Locke has seen first-hand how a good comedy room works, and his experience also includes classy Manchester bar The Northern and much-loved music venue Band On The Wall. This club has a few teething problems tonight – the sound, especially starts dreadful and upgrades only to acceptable as the show goes on – but it has a lot of promise. The question will be whether a town of 77,000 and its environs can sustain such a large space – if it can, the prognosis is good for similar-sized communities across the county.

One of those 77,000 residents is tonight’s compere, Danny McLoughlin, pictured, who admits playing to so many people he personally knows is a slightly odd concept. Amid the home-town banter, he’s got charming and funny material about growing up poor and the very British disappointment of the low-rent Gulliver’s World theme park.

If McLoughlin was the voice of the town, opening act Hal Cruttenden was the fey Southerner, living up to every middle-class stereotype – and teasing the Northerners for theirs. ‘Some of you fucking hate me,’ he said after his tongue-in-cheek ribbing – though it’s unlikely they did; his tales of unmanly ailments, camp attitude and relationship with a forceful Ulsterwoman with terrifying accent proved a fine opening to the venue. Curious side note, though: not one of the audience acknowledged being a gay man when Cruttenden asked.

Manchester-based Dan Nightingale filled the second section, with a frisky and playful set, taking good-natured pops at the iron-pumping muscleheads at his gym and summing up Britain’s attitude to drink with devastating accuracy. And, of course, there’s nothing audiences like more than being told what feckless drunks they are – it reinforces an odd sense of identity.

The bill was completed by a fourth likeable lad, Justin Moorhouse, doing his first gig in three and a half months. ‘This place is nice,’ he said. ‘They’ve Hollyoakes it up.’ As a jovial, chubby Northern comic, Moorhouse could probably have played the venue in its old incarnation. But that’s another stereotype; his teasing, often daft, material might not be particularly challenging, but it undoubtedly works, and is enlivened by flourishes of skilful language, such as describing his teenage offspring as ‘a yawn in a hood’. The crowd are duly pleased.

A strong opening weekend, then, for this welcome venture, with the sort of reliably amusing comics it should be able to attract week after week. No showboating launch with TV-grade stars being tapped for favours, creating unrealistic expectations; but a representative night that will hopefully draw the punters back week after week. Locke’s bank manager is presumably hoping it will.

Review date: 6 Feb 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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