14 September, 2000

What entices a dozen or so of the comedy circuit's biggest names to appear for no money under a railway arch by a canal in Manchester? Firstly, a good cause: the venue's own fund for sick children. More importantly, the fact that after twenty years, the evening in question saw the gala opening of the second Comedy Store venue.

The 500-seater auditorium (with bar and diner attached) makes maximal use of the available space beneath the arches at Deansgate Locks. Then again, a comedy venue doesn't need a wide range of technical facilities: a tiny stage, no real wing space, a basic lighting rig and half-decent PA system, and use the rest of the area to put more seats in. It feels intimate enough, although it was noticeable that, perhaps due to stage lights in their eyes, none of the performers could really see to pick on punters beyond the first two or three rows.

As elder statesmen of the Comedy Store, Paul Merton and Julian Clary kicked off each half of the proceedings; each to an extent coasted on his reputation, but Clary did so rather more winningly, acidly complimenting the Mancunian audience, "You look very well... considering you don't eat properly." Local boy Smug Roberts, making his first big appearance, turned his nervousness into amiable-scally-speed-freak jitters which so endeared him to the audience that he overran his five-minute spot by at least another ten without ever cracking any real gags. The most prominent role in the first half, though, was played by a microphone stand which would not stay fixed at a practical height, supplying a wealth of business both to John Thomson, amid his high-speed film-genre impressions, and comedy magician Paul Zenon, who performed the old "cutting a rope in two and then joining it together again" trick with the mic cable.

Occasional remarks made by acts throughout the evening suggested that there were two standing dressing-room challenges: to work in a gag about the fuel shortage, and to see whether you could get away with a Man Utd joke. Sean Meo managed both in quick succession, thus – he told us – netting twenty quid. Eventually, though, the pressures of a three-hour-plus bill and a largely free bar began to tell, with attention flagging and uninspired heckles; Boothby Graffoe's quick jog through the highlights of his Edinburgh set degenerated into an attempt to score an E off the audience.

A number of Manchester nightlife establishments have recently closed or refocused themselves due to thin business. However, Comedy Store supremo Don Ward didn't get where he is today without knowing where to find and how to cater for a market. In a week which also saw the opening of a Hard Rock Café in the city, the Store at Deansgate looked set to become a fixture on the circuit.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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