The Establishment club – review
Keith Allen and the Establishment club are here to save us from bland comedy and some other stuff too, apparently. Hogwash. Fun show though
Pity poor Phil Nichol. Has any comic ever had a worse act to follow onstage then George Galloway talking about rape for 20 minutes? That's what Nichol had to do at the reopened Establishment club on Tuesday, and as you'd expect, he dealt with it.
It was a bizarre change of tone on a night of many bizarre changes of tone – but while the Establishment's first show for 40-odd years was indeed muddled, and very long (11.30pm-2.30am), ultimately it was a lot of fun.
A brief bit of backstory: in 1961, Peter Cook opened a radical/satirical club in a nightclub, to get round stringent censorship laws that restricted what could be said on a theatre stage. A team including Cook's widow, Lin, and Keith Allen have reopened it to provide a stage for "performers who have a genuine dedication to the art of unrestricted, uncensored performances". Its temporary home is Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club (hence the late starting time), with a nearby permanent venue being eyed up, funds permitting.
Allen is the host, spokesman and charismatic figurehead for the Establishment Mk II. He was one of the agitators who shook up the comedy world in the early 1980s with his appearances at the Comedy Store, and he clearly fancies his chances again in 2012. He prowled around the stage being as un-PC and iconoclastic as he could muster (more on that later), he vehemently backed the acts (as any MC should) and occasionally told some jokes, most of which were shit (needless to say he's no Peter Cook). While the acts were on, he was constantly lurking in the background with a manic grin on his face, which has pretty much been his role in public life for 30 years now.
This being a jazz club, everything smacked of class and sophistication, sagacity and low lighting. Pricey drinks and even pricier trousers. The comics either played along with the sophistication, or bulldozed through it. Elder statesman of comedy Arnold Brown of course did the former. He provided 10 classy minutes on his upbringing and Wills and Kate, as well as one of the genuine moments of tension when he called out George Galloway (sat in the crowd) for having ties with Arabian TV channel Al Mayadeen, which has links to Iran and the Syrian regime. "You've got to nip, fascism, in, the bud," asserted Brown, jabbing his wizened Scottish finger towards Galloway. A few people cheered. You genuinely don't get this sort of thing at other comedy clubs.
Marian Pashley was another with a distinguished air about her. Hers was a measured set that had the room entertained if not laughing an awful lot. She spoke about having lived in both the Yorkshire countryside and Hull, and how parties are rubbish when you get to a certain age. In referencing Ikea and Lidl, Pashley inadvertently undermined the Establishment Mk II's big talk about being a place for outspoken and original comedy.
Then came something quite unexpected – this long interview between Allen and Galloway. Although it was way too chummy to be an interview. Allen was a sycophant, giving Galloway the floor to defend his recent comments on rape and to talk in quite some detail about why Julian Assange is innocent of his rape charges. Allen challenged nothing of what he said. He made Des O'Connor look like David Frost. When an audience member did make a challenge from the gallery, she was pretty much shouted down. So much for freedom of speech.
Enter Phil Nichol to take the awkwardness out of proceedings with his trademark high-octane cartoonish musical comedy, and some man-kissing with the audience. He's had his "I'm the Only Gay Eskimo" song up his sleeve since 1993 (the first time I saw it was in 1999), and it still does the business. Tonight it was there for him, it really was. Following Nichol was a band of Irish boys (literally), The Strypes, average age 15, who have a dreadful name but Jesus Christ can they play. They were a sort of early Stones/Animals foursome who are terrifyingly talented for their age, and brought the first half to a rousing finish.
The second section opened with a wonderful cabaret act called Dickie Beau who lip-synched and mimed to a recording of a Judy Garland monologue. It sounded like Garland when her star was waning and was sick of it all. It was compelling and poignant stuff. Next up was Mark Nelson, a no-frills Scottish stand-up who couldn't be any further away from the mascara-stained previous act. He got some big laughs from his material on the Olympics and the story of how babies are conceived. A few people were gone by this point, but it was late. Joanne Lau was next, who noted that the night had been "quite conservative" – surely a swear word round here – and ruffled a few feathers with her ukulele comedy songs that were more shocking than they were funny and only drew a luke-warm response.
Terry Alderton put in a commanding performance worthy of the headline slot. It featured his "voices in his head" trademark, some cheeky jibes about the night ("Peter Cook, swear, swear, laugh, laugh – ugh") and another direct if not vicious rebuke of Galloway, basically calling him a hypocrite. One routine was hijacked by a man at the front who like the dude on the Dolmio advert, who managed to take Alderton's trousers down during it. Alderton performed the rest of his slot literally with trousers round ankles. A suitably strange but funny end to the night.
There are two problems I have with how the Establishment MkII is being touted. Firstly, this is a club that has arrived with some big talk. It's raison d'être is clearly to be the alternative, a reaction – but to what? It's all so vague. At first, Allen said the club was the antidote to bland comedy, specifically "comedians who make a career out panel shows". But 30 minutes later it was part of some wider social upheaval where "things are changing out there, people aren't being fooled anymore. The edifice is crumbling." As I wrote (at some length) last week, the Establishment in 2012 can't hope to have the clear and identifiable purpose that the 1961 incarnation did (which was to undermine Lord Chamberlain and his censorship). All the talk about how radical it will be is setting it up for a fall, and feels like self-congratulatory bluster. Yes, there were a few flashpoints tonight, but only because George Galloway was there. There are only so many pantomime villains like him who you can wheel in to provoke a reaction. Perhaps if prickly Private Eye columnist Victor Lewis-Smith has a regular slot – as was initially suggested – the club might gain a vital satirical edge.
Secondly, and very oddly given Allen's background, he talks as if no one's ever started a comedy club before. He appears to think that comedy in 2012 starts and ends with Live at the Apollo and Mock the Week, and that the Establishment is a crusade to start something new and fresh and exciting. Someone tell Keith to take a gander at London is Funny! There's a whole world of comedy out there away from Apollo et al. Loads of weird and wonderful acts, plenty of outspoken ones too. And the clubs are there reflect that. In his initial rant about how much the Establishment is going to be shaking things up, he said by way of demonstration: "That Michael McIntyre – what a cunt!" Again, someone tell Keith that if he actually visited a few more clubs, he'd know that comics say that ALL THE TIME. It's a comedy club cliché. Later on he says "this is the show that asks 'Why does Stevie Wonder wear a watch?'" Jesus Christ. Allen really does have some funny ideas about what's radical. That joke didn't piss me off because it's un-PC, it pissed me off because it's lame and unoriginal and boring, and it's being held up as "controversial".
Despite my reservations, I love a comedy club that's run by people who really give a shit about it. It makes all the difference. And you can't fault Allen for that. On this admittedly early evidence, the Establishment is likely to be a wonderful addition to the circuit, but not the seismic arrival it claims to be.