Deansways and Vandella – a tale of two city venues
Two fabulous new venues have cropped up in east and west London that are worthy of your attention. Deansways and Vandella are like the Mitchell brothers – different, yet somehow the same
Connected though they are by the central line, Bethnal Green and Shepherd's Bush are very different places.
Out east, Bethnal Green is an area that has been roughly defined by, in chronological order, its slums, gangsters, Bangladeshi community and hipsters. It's arguably the bit of the capital where the collision of old-school London and new-school London is at its most stark.
Shepherd's Bush is of course out west, where the money is. If you're heading west from Bethnal Green to the Bush, somewhere around Lancaster Gate the jeans get a bit more upmarket, and the jewellery acquires another zero. The Bush hasn't conformed to the west London stereotype though, being a little bit tasty, to be blunt. Now it's best-known for it Antipodean community and the Westfield behemoth that threatens to gentrify, for better or worse.
What links the two areas is they now have new comedy-variety clubs that, touch wood, will be around for a little while. Both are run with a whole lot of love and comedy nous, a spirit of adventure, and both go beyond the traditional four stand-ups and an MC club night. It's basically good news for comedy punters east, west, or anyone who can be bothered to travel.
If you follow LiF on Twitter, you will have heard me banging on about this place. Deansways is scruffy, no-frills, and would probably get the full house from a healthy and safety officer. It has, for want of a better phrase, the x factor, with an inexplicable naval theme and Opportunity Knocks-esque glitzy touches – it may be done on the cheap but most importantly, it just works. It's the sort of venue where the show starts when you walk in the building.
That building is Bethnal Green Working Men's club, and Deansway's is the back room that holds about 50-60 people, or 80+ if you ask new venue boss Harry Deansway, a sort of Delboy/Malcolm McLaren figure for the comedy circuit. He runs the gaff with Hollie Ebdon, and this is what he had to say about the place:
"We've kept the room exactly as we found it. We opened up the room, there was a naval theme already there and we just went – let's not fight it. It's like when archaeologists go to the pyramids and pull back a rock and it's been untouched for 1,000 years. It's frozen in time, we've just put a comedy club in there."
"It's gonna have a real identity, where people can create stuff, do things a bit more experimental than you might see at more established venues. I want to build a community of people and acts and an audience who supports them.
"The main thing is to have funny people and funny nights, no marketing bullshit, we're not gonna call it 'alternative' or 'new wave', just a load of funny nights basically."
"I think the London comedy circuit is the best in the world, and if you speak to internationals acts they'd probably agree with you. 'Comedy boom' is a horrible term and it's yet to grace my wallet, but I think we have a golden crop of great acts doing interesting things, and now I've got a venue supporting that."
Damn right. An array of impressive shows have already been finding their feet at Deansway's, including one of the funniest nights on the circuit, talent show Star Search!; vehicles for ace comedians Trevor Lock, Dave Hill and Totally Tom; a run of long-form improv (better than it sounds) and, rather indulgently, a "rock n roll horror musical about the comedy industry". There are also regular variety nights of character, stand-up and sketch comedy (such as the opening night when Dr Brown (top) and Simon Amstell performed – thanks to Ben Meadows for the photos).
The venue represents a change of fortune for Deansway, who used to run excellent/defunct comedy magazine Fix, and who has been a maverick figure in the industry who's never quite flown. Now it seems the lad has found his wings.
"Yeah it's been great. There were a lot of lows before [this point], the debts I got from the magazine were awful, it was really depressing as I put so much work and money into it and really created something. To be honest it took me quite a few years to get over [the magazine closing]. I got into a legal difficulty as I did a Faustian pact with a money man and that ended very badly – that cemented the end of it really.
"It's made such a difference having my own venue and not relying on someone else. If you're doing it in the back of a pub, the manager doesn't give a shit. Now we can do what we want with it. I run it with Hollie though, it's a partnerhsip; it's my name on the door but she takes care of the business. None of the acts would get paid if I ran it, I'm notorious in the industry ... "
And why did Deansway name the room after himself?
"It's about time I got some fucking credit to be honest! I've been promoting comedy for eight years and I'm completely broke, so I thought fuck it."
As you may have guessed from the above photo, the 200-capacity Vandella has a slightly more budget. Throwing money at a venue is never a guarantee of it being any good, but the Vandella has a good feel to it already.
They'll be up against more competition than Deansways, with Knock2Bag's Bar FM venue, and the Ginglik a matter of metres away. But Vandella main man James Wren, who's earned his comedy chops over the past decade at the Hen and Chickens and Lowdown at the Albany, is confident:
"It's hard to stop smiling at the moment. This is the one we've always wanted. How we were [at the Albany] was always very dependent on who was running the bar so we lost our way a little bit, we had some great times and great shows, but it feels like we've moved up the ladder considerably.
"Primarily what we want [the Vandella] to be is a creative place, we want to get people to push themselves and give things a go. We had that at the Albany at first but we lost it as we were fighting the pub most of the time.
"For the first time we've got a place that has the complete backing of the people who own it [Fuller's brewery]. It's a real change of direction for them as they're an old real ale company but they've put a lot of time and money behind it, and we wouldn't have gone for it otherwise.
"It's been a real journey over last few months. We made sure we got the right designers in, we didn't go for the traditional pub people we got these two girls in who really got what we wanted, which was something a bit Motowny, a bit 60s, a bit funky, but friendly and cool. That's exactly what they've given us."
As you can also see from the photo, it's not like any Fuller's boozer you will have been into. Previously it was faintly mod-ish bar and restaurant the Vesbar, and the refit has brought the sexy (how many Fuller's places can you say that about?), with some chic design, a baby grand piano and even a bed in the back room. But most importantly it feels like a venue with a bar, not a bar with a venue.
Upcoming highlights include monthly nights from Marcel Lucont, Benny Boot, Oram & Meeten and Rich Fulcher. Other than comedy, there will be music particularly at weekends, theatre, film shoots, cabaret and spoken word.
The arrival of these two new comedy hubs means that zone 1, particularly Soho and Leicester Square, has had its grip on London's comedy loosened slightly. And that's no bad thing, it's a big old city so why not share the love?