Opinion: Keeping It Real By Keeping It Small

frank skinner

Everybody must surely have a fantasy version of what the perfect stand-up comedy gig would be. This is mine. A smart, funny comedian sets up shop in London somewhere. A small club, where instead of doing a one-night stand they can settle into a relaxed run and play regularly to appreciative audiences. Ideally I'd like my fantasy comedy gigs to start like that scene in Good Fellas where Ray Liotta's character is guided to a specially placed table at the front of the stage and given a bottle of vintage wine on the house by the maitre'd. But I'm not usually that demanding. A comfy seat at the back with a diet Coke will usually do it for me. If anyone in front of me gets their phone out though I may turn into Joe Pesci.*

And my dream may be coming true. Stewart Lee opens this week at the Leicester Square Theatre, while Bridget Christie brings her Edinburgh Comedy Award hit A Bic For Her to the Soho Theatre. Lee runs until January 19 with a short break for Christmas, Christie has just extended her run until January 25 due to demand, though she is taking a longer Yuletide break. Not that they are in competition of course. 

Acts increasingly seem to prefer keeping it intimate when Lee for instance, could probably fill the O2, certainly the Apollo. Maybe lucrative than playing a big one-nighter in a theatre and making out like a bandit, perhaps, but more fun than chugging up and down the motorway existing on a diet of service station gossip, Ginsters and tar-flavoured coffee. Or heading for an arena and needing binoculars to see the back rows. 

It's good to see these long runs rather than smash-and-grabs at places like the Hammersmith Apollo. Lee has even said that these residencies can pay better than big one-offs. He has suggested that one of the reasons agents book their acts into Hammersmith is they think it will impress BBC executives who will see comedians' names in lights on their way to TV Centre. Now that the BBC is migrating to Manchester that is not going to be so advantageous if it was the case. 

The Soho Theatre has just announced its new season and there are some good-sized runs in their programme too. Tony Law's latest show, Nonsense Overdrive, stretches from Dec 3 to Jan 5, while Foster's Best Newcomer John Kearns will be bringing his freeform lunacy to W1 from Jan 13 to 31 as part of Soho's 2014 Foster's Awards Season. Arthur Smith will be there too for a fortnight from mid-Feb with his brilliant Leonard Cohen tribute. So much for stories of comedy-in-crisis. These non-Live at the Apollo acts seem to be doing OK. It is not just small acts that do big runs, of course. Edna Everage bids a farewell to the live stage with a spectacular show at the London Palladium which opens next week and runs for eight weeks. 

But it is the smaller club gigs that hold the real allure for me. I prefer my mirth without the girth. Frank Skinner could easily play mega-venues, but following his short comeback run at the Soho Theatre from Nov 14 he is going to be at the Leicester Square Theatre from Jan 21 to February 22.  I can see the immediate attraction of Leicester Square for him. He only lives around the corner so the daily commute is a five-minute walk each way. Yet Skinner broke the record for the biggest-ever solo gig when he played Battersea Power Station in the late nineties. Are these club gigs a comedown for him? Hardly. If you ask me they are a come-up.

*Oh, and a parking space in the same postcode would be nice too. 

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