Gig report: Top Secret Comedy Club
It may need a lick of paint but Top Secret in Covent Garden is one of the best comedy clubs in the West End, writes Paul Fleckney
If the name suggests this is a club with an air of mystery about it, then cast that idea aside, as Top Secret is an increasingly popular club in the West End, started in 2011 as a cut-price Big Night Out, Jongleurs et al (only without the post-show club).
It's also hard to feel mysterious winding your way through the Africa Centre to where the comedy takes place; it feels more like you've happened upon a disused scout hut, what with the peeling paint and eerie silence. It's not an entrance that screams "atmos". But it embraces the no-frills chic, as epitomised by selling peanuts in a plastic champagne flute. You have to applaud that.
And crucially, Top Secret delivers where it matters most: the show. The room itself, while no oil painting, is a belter for comedy being a low-ceilinged basement (hard to go wrong with that). The line-ups are consistently strong and the club as a whole is run with a lot of love and energy by Mark Rothman. A package like that makes for a cracking comedy club.
Tonight (Friday), numbers suffer as it's brass monkeys outside, but the half-full room undoubtedly has a good night. The line-up: measured middle-classer David Baker opening, sparky New Yorker Laura Levites, Tex Avery hipster Paul Sweeney and provocative gag machine Josh Howie headlining.
Rothman's MCing is perfunctory but enthusiastic and does the job of warming the crowd up for Baker, a comic who takes his sweet time. Top Secret is attentive and non-rowdy enough to listen and their patience is rewarded with a solid set, livened up by a row of bemused but up-for-it Swiss young'uns down the front who are translating for each other inbetween sambuccas.
Levites is a little unlucky, suffering interruptions at the start from which she doesn't recover. She's a charismatic presence who I imagine normally fares better – this is the first time I've seen her – but tonight her brutally honest, neurotic schtick only gets going about seven minutes into her allotted eight. Sweeney then takes the gig by the horns with a set that makes sure you don't forget him. His braces, tattoos, rockabilly quiff and major's moustache instantly grab attention, and he does his best to keep things that way, clambering over chairs, hip-thrusting, stripteasing and gurning his way through his set. A bit gimmicky for my liking but it was sure entertaining and he turned up the temperature of the room in a stroke.
Josh Howie then gives a lesson in how to headline. Visibly fucked (he's just become a father for the second time), he is still compos mentis enough to toy with the audience expertly. Few comics do the tension-release thing better. Howie loves awkwardness – but loves getting laughs even more. So while he has shock factor (faux-racism and faux-misogyny like a mischievous Sarah Silverman, asking individuals unbelievably intrusive questions, baiting the Swiss contingent with some cheap if funny Nazi jibes), he is gag heavy. Very heavy. He piles up jokes, one on another, seeing how far he can push it, like a bricklayer angling for the sack. It's a brilliant end to the night.
Top Secret is in danger, though. The owners of the Africa Centre plan to sell the venue in a year's time and Rothman and co will fight hard to prevent that happening.
It would be a massive shame if Top Secret was forced to close. It has comedy on seven nights a week and its Friday/Saturday night offering is worth its existence alone, and it's notable that comedians speak extremely highly of the place. If comics love performing there, that's great for the audience. So get down there, comedy-goers.
What the punters say
Kirsty, London: "It was really funny I'd definitely come back. Really good value for money compared to Jongleurs. I regret sitting in the front, I got picked on so much. I thought the first act was the funniest."
Kayleigh, Southampton: "I really enjoyed it, it's the first time I've come here; I loved the last guy as I'm not very politically correct, and the guy who did the songs. I really liked being at the front – it made it more interactive and fun, they were really quick on their feet. The drink prices were really good considering where we are."
Pete, London: "Really good night, I've been here once before and had a really good time. That guy at the end was awesome, he was so out of order."
In short ...
Ups: Great value at £8 advance, text-book room for comedy, easy to find, quality line-ups, and comics love it. Reasonable West End booze prices.
Downs: The building needs some love. Grotty bogs in particular. Might need a stronger hand with chatters, on a few occasions people got away with being pretty disrespectful.
The punchline: A fantastic no-frills alternative to its West End rivals, with top comics for minimal £££.