Ben West, founder of the capital’s newest variety show, The House of Fun, explores south London’s insatiable appetite for comedy
Perhaps it was triggered by the recession – we all needed cheering up a bit. Perhaps there’s simply little more enjoyable than an evening of laughter. Whatever the reason, there has been an explosion of choice in live comedy shows in south London in recent months.
I should know: in October I launched The House of Fun, compèred by legendary comedian Arthur Smith at the Blackheath Halls, and it was such a success it’s returning on 21 February. Guest starring on the show this time is Jenny Eclair, so fans of grumpy old men and women will get a bumper helping.
The show, which features music, magic and theatre as well as comedy, is to become a regular feature at the Halls, and more and more of Britain’s top comedians are expressing an interest in taking part. The first featured several local performers, and Arthur himself spent his early years in Blackheath.
The February show includes local celebrated musicians The McCarricks, who have worked with everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Patti Smith and Sinead O’Connor, and up-and-coming local comedy sketch duo Shirley and Shirley, dubbed by James Corden as ‘two of the freshest and most energetic performers in Edinburgh this year’ when they performed at the Edinburgh Festival. Recently added to the line-up is acoustic duo Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham, founding members of Nine Below Zero, who return to their blues roots performing songs by blues legends like Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo and Leadbelly.
And there are now plenty of local options for your comedy fix. There’s the longstanding Up the Creek comedy venue in Greenwich, with its weekly changing roster of stand ups. It was started by the godfather of Greenwich comedy, the late Malcolm Hardee, who had earlier launched the infamous Tunnel Club in gorgeous surroundings overlooking the Blackwall Tunnel approach. In fact, this is probably where the locality’s flare for comedy started.
‘Malcolm started the most notorious of all the early clubs on the new comedy circuit,’ says Arthur Smith. ‘Up the Creek goes on, and the [Greenwich Comedy Festival] has become a big deal today. Comedy is particularly strong in the area now.’
The annual (bar a brief hiatus in 2013) Greenwich Comedy Festival, held in September, brings a big range of top comedians to Greenwich, performing by the Thames in the grounds of the National Maritime Museum. Incidentally, the festival was started by Cass and Will Briggs, Malcolm Hardee’s stepchildren. Arthur is often a performer at the festival: does he have a special fondness for performing in the area where he grew up?
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I went to Roan School, now John Roan, and had my first nights out around Greenwich. My first professional engagement was there – I’ve written about it in my memoir, My Name is Daphne Fairfax. The Greenwich area has offered me lots of interesting stages to perform on, including the roof of the Royal Naval College and Greenwich Park.’
Mycenae House in Westcombe Park is not on that many people’s radars as a live venue, but in recent months it has been establishing itself as a purveyor of a growing programme of arts events – including the monthly Mycenae House Comedy Club night, which typically features three stand-up comedians and a compère.
There’s a similar monthly setup in Bromley, with Fat Jesters Bromley Comedy in the Churchill Theatre Studio Bar, and both Noel Fielding and Milton Jones are set to perform solo sets at the Churchill this month.
Blackheath Halls also hosts regular big-name solo slots – in the autumn Marcus Brigstocke, Shappi Khorsandi and Paul Chowdhry all took to the main stage there. The venue also hosts the Laughing Boy Comedy Club, with a further selection of comics on the circuit.
If that wasn’t enough, The Crown pub in Blackheath Village has regular comedy nights, the Crown Comedy Club, and there’s also the Canary Wharf Comedy Club at the East Wintergarden, just across the river.
When you add the regular superstar comedy shows at the 02 Arena in North Greenwich – Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay, Miranda Hart and even Monty Python have all played the vast venue – one begins to wonder whether we’ll be doing anything other than watching comedy shows in 2015. But it is certainly no bad thing that the locality is increasingly becoming known for laughter, since it’s always the best medicine…
The House of Fun with Arthur Smith and Jenny Eclair comes to Blackheath Halls on 21 February. Tickets £17.50.