You’re havin’ a laugh: An insider’s guide to comedy in London
A few weeks ago, I was walking through Soho and spotted a familiar face through a window. It was Michael McIntyre, trying out material in front of a tiny full house at 21Soho before announcing his new world tour, Macnificent. Not bad value for £15. The next time he plays London it will be at the 02 Arena in April 2024, where prices will be significantly higher and only binoculars will get you such a good view. It’s happy news that the London comedy scene has never been so exciting or busy. High and low, there’s something for everyone — from Live at the Apollo mainstream to the most surreal of stand-up, to no lack of LGBTQ+ talent. And don’t we all need a laugh right now? Below are my top tips for comedy in the capital, including where to head, and the names and dates to look out for. May it give you the best kind of belly-ache.
Soho is the centre of the stand-up universe...
The old saying used to be that Londoners were never more than a few metres from a rat, but stand in Soho Square and it becomes top comedy clubs that are always impossibly close. There’s the new young upstart 21Soho on Sutton Row (W1, 21-soho.com) and the well established Soho Theatre on Dean Street (W1, sohotheatre.com). 21Soho is better for club-style bills, while Soho Theatre has three spaces — cabaret bar downstairs, main theatre upstairs and studio at the top. Top tips? Foodie comic Ed Gamble & Acquaintances on March 21 at 21Soho, absurdist Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Sam Campbell, February 27 until March 4, Soho Theatre
....but east is edgier
Perhaps no surprise, but for cutting edge comedy, tomorrow’s stars go to Hackney. The Moth Club (Valette Street, E9, mothclub.co.uk) is London’s coolest showcase of new talent. US sensation Catherine Cohen played her first UK shows here and on March 22 and 23 they host cult New York sketch group Simple Town. Nearby new venue The Hackney Den (97 Stoke Newington Road, N16, hackneyden.co.uk) might give it a run for its money. Rising star Catherine Bohart is there on March 16 with cat-loving comic Ania Magliano.
Don’t let your budget slow you down
The best stand-up can also be dirt cheap. If comedy on water floats your boat there are the Guinea Pig Club new material nights on the Tattershall Castle (Victoria Embankment, SW1, thetattershallcastle.co.uk), which is moored on the Thames opposite the London Eye and has tickets for £6. At Angel Comedy’s Bill Murray pub (39 Queen’s Head Street, N1, angelcomedy.co.uk) in Islington you can see Simon Amstell on February 28 for £7.60 and at their second venue round the corner at the Camden Head (100 Camden High Street, NW1, angelcomedy.co.uk), the regular Raw Comedy nights won’t cost you a penny.
… so support a good cause
A comedy gig is not just a superb night out; you can support a good cause at the same time. Shaparak Khorsandi and Jessica Fostekew are among the acts at a Syria and Turkey Earthquake fundraiser at 21Soho on February 27. There’s also an earthquake fundraiser at the Leicester Square Theatre (6 Leicester Place, WC2, leicestersquaretheatre.com) fronted by Live at the Apollo breakout act Kae Kurd on March 5. Further ahead Ted Lasso star Nick Mohammed appears at the Laugh for Leukaemia benefit at the Bloomsbury Theatre (15 Gordon Street, WC1, ucl.ac.uk) on July 1 for Blood Cancer UK.
For a better time, don’t heckle
The louts that shout at gigs think they have the wit of Oscar Wilde; they don’t. But even the best heckle cannot compete with the professional onstage: comedians are always ready with the last word. They also have a microphone. Some responses to uninvited interruptions are priceless. Take this classic put-down from Harry Hill: “You may heckle me now, but I am safe in the knowledge that when I get home, I have a lovely chicken in the oven.”
There is one exception to the rule. James Acaster, the co-host of the Off Menu podcast with the aforementioned Ed Gamble, actively encourages hecklers at his latest show and builds his entire performance around them. So if you can’t zip your lips keep an eye out for his next show via jamesacaster.com.
Keep an eye out for surprises
Michael McIntyre is not the only superstar who pops up in London clubs. Performing in front of a live audience is really the only way you can tell if you’ve written something funny. Russell Howard and Dara Ó Briain have also played 21Soho, while Frank Skinner is back there in May.
Other London venues also play host to surprise drop-ins from TV names. The 99Club (2A Charing Cross Road, WC2, 99clubcomedy.com) and Top Secret Comedy Club (170 Drury Lane, WC2, thetopsecretcomedyclub.co.uk)have had the likes of Jack Whitehall and I’m A Celebrity’s Seann Walsh. Further afield controversial US star Dave Chappelle has gigged at Up The Creek in Greenwich (302 Creek Road, SE10, up-the-creek.com). Always Be Comedy (SE11 and SW18, alwaysbecomedy.com), which has outposts in Kennington and Wandsworth, is run by James Gill, who does warm-up for shows including The Jonathan Ross Show. Romesh Ranganathan was on stage just last week, while Masked Singer host Joel Dommett is in Kennington on February 28, though of course it sold out ages ago. Sign up to their mailing list to find out about future mystery guests in advance.
It’s not the new rock and roll
When David Baddiel and Rob Newman played arenas in the Nineties, they started acting like rock stars. Those days are long gone. Comics today are a distinctly sensible bunch. Mock The Week star Angela Barnes likes nothing better than visiting Cold War nuclear bunkers on days off, Baddiel’s chum Frank Skinner schedules church visits into his tour. And Rosie Jones says she has very specific requirements in her dressing room: “All I need is stuff to make a cup of tea and some Doritos.” But generally the sets are tighter, likely as they’re not marred by drink; basically, if you remember the bad old days, don’t be put off getting out there again.
Get locked up in the Vault
Each spring the Vault Festival showcases a spectacular mix of comedy and theatre in various dark, hidden spaces around the back of Waterloo that makes you feel as if you have been invited to join a special club. Half the fun can be finding the labyrinthine locations, so do allow plenty of time to get there (Leake Street, SE1, vaultfestival.com). This year’s festival continues until March 19. Madcap multi-media comedian Mat Ewins is there from March 1-3. There is a risk that Vault might lose its unique venues in the future but rest assured that one way or another the festival will return.
Cram it into one weekend
Every year Montreal hosts the Just for Laughs festival where comedians from all over the world gather in the hope of impressing TV and film executives. Next month, for the first time, there is a Just For Laughs London spin-off, which is less of a trade fair and more for comedy fans. From March 2 to 5, the 02 Arena and other venues including a pop-up nearby Spiegeltent will host the cream of comedy (Peninsula Square, SE10, jfllondon.com). The festival opens with Katherine Ryan hosting an all-star show and closes with the London debut of The Wrestling, an Edinburgh Fringe institution in which comics including Aisling Bea, Phil Wang and Taskmaster’s Alex Horne don leotards and hurl themselves at each other. Elsewhere the weekend includes transgender award-winner Jordan Gray and a special edition of FOC It Up!, the club night celebrating “comedians of colour that are non cis-men” hosted by Thanyia Moore. To see it all, get a four-day festival pass.
But if you can’t get to a gig…
One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic is that live comedy has become more accessible for everyone, as venues put gigs online. They are a choice, as clubs have the infrastructure to keep hosting online shows, giving people who cannot get out — whether for health, financial or other reasons — the chance to experience live comedy from the sofa. Arguably the best way to view comedy online is through streaming service NextUp (nextupcomedy.com). It regularly airs live gigs from The Comedy Store, and future specials include the Musical Comedy Awards final at the Bloomsbury Theatre headlined by Rachel Parris on March 31.