COMEDY / Laughing them out of court: The Comedy Store has got bigger and better. But it's not the same, cry the comedians who knew it as it was. Report by Owen Slot

Paul Merton received two nominations for the British Comedy Awards which went out live on ITV on Sunday night, but he wasn't at the London Television Centre venue. Josie Lawrence was invited to present an award, but she wasn't there either. And nor were any of the Comedy Store Players. For Sunday night was the last night that crowds would ever go to the Comedy Store in Leicester Square, and the Players had all agreed that they and their impro comedy would be there to see the place out in style.

The Players' groupies (three visits a month is standard practice) were there in force too; they had met and become friends through the many hours spent in the queue and were aware that Sunday was a special night. The Comedy Store was by no means dying - only moving to a larger 400-seater venue a few hundred yards away - but on Sunday queueing had started at 2.30pm, five-and-a-half hours before kick-off.

And downstairs Don Ward, who started the original 100- seater Store in Dean Street in 1979 and moved it to the Leicester Square 200-seater in 1985, was in nostalgic mood. The pictures that filled the staircase walls had gone, the bar had run almost dry. 'I feel like a murderer,' he said. He recalled the countless comics that had passed through and selected for special mention the random appearances of Robin Williams, the stunning Store debuts of Jack Dee and Jo Brand, and the comic progress over the years of Paul Merton.

On stage, the Players' performance matched the occasion. Their first request was a sketch involving Popeye, Queen Victoria and a colander, they peaked with 'Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Disappearing Igloo' (Merton enters, spits mouthful of water - the remains of the discovered igloo - over Holmes), and they finished after 'the last ever moment of comedy in the building'. Later, as a dewy-eyed crowd shuffled out, the sounds of Nat King Cole's 'Unforgettable' filled the room.

MARK LAMARR

'It sounds really corny and showbizy, but there are so many good memories. Even when I wasn't playing, I hung around there. If you played the Comedy Store, you'd play there a lot because it's got quite a select list of comics and also you tended to feel at home on the stage. A lot of the people who played there would feel really comfortable and often not play any of their set, just come on and have a chat and try out new stuff. I'll be incredibly sad to see the place go because I've spent so much of my adult life there. Also I should imagine I was the youngest person to compere here, when I was about 22 or 23 - which was quite an honour.

'That said, the sight-lines were really bad, the basement is horrible, the chairs aren't comfortable, everyone's crammed in and it's very expensive. I'd certainly not pay to go and see comedy there, but it is the place I've enjoyed working most and maybe the audience have had some really blinding nights too. They've certainly had some appalling ones.'

ARTHUR SMITH

'I remember a time when a man was in the front row reading the Sun, and I grabbed his paper and, in a frenzy of mock origami, tore it up. Sort of as a political act. And then he came and hit me after the show and demanded his 22p back. I also remember a late 'lock-in' with Paul Merton. We were locked in accidentally and it became a sort of marathon smoking and drinking session until we were let out by the cleaner the next morning.

'It was an exciting place, though - the midnight show particularly. You know that feeling when you think there must be something else somewhere else that's better than this? Well, if you went on stage at midnight in the Comedy Store, you didn't think that. You thought 'This is the place to be.' '

MARK THOMAS

'Seeing Tony Allen (one of the founding fathers) for the first time down here, that was pretty incredible. Getting someone on stage who took their clothes off while you were compering - which happened to me once - that was bizarre. But as a comic, you always remember your best gigs. Doing gigs with Charles Fleischer, the guy who did the voice of Roger Rabbit, that for me was the best. At the time, no one could work the room like he did. He'd come on in the late show, do 45 minutes and just blow the place apart. Then someone had to follow him] The second time I did it, I got an encore. Following someone who was simply brilliant and doing alright was enough for me.'

HELEN LEDERER

'My most memorable evening was when I was in a double act and I went on and a man in the audience said 'Let's see your clit.' I mean, I'm sorry - I was quite shocked. It was pretty shattering, though looking back at it now, you think, 'What's the big deal?' But it's interesting because at the time there was French and Saunders, and myself doing a double act with Maggie Fox, but otherwise people weren't used to the experience of having women on stage doing comedy. So in order to deal with that surprise and difficulty, they had to ask to see my genitals. Now of course people aren't so confrontational about female stand- ups because there are more women doing it.'

KEVIN DAY

'Apart from urinating in the sink on numerous occasions, I particularly remember when I was booed all the way on and off the stage. Either every person in the audience had seen me before and hated me, or they didn't like my haircut, but I got introduced and they all started booing; they carried on while I was on stage - I stayed for about a minute - and they carried on while I walked off.

JO BRAND

'After the Tunnel Club, the Comedy Store was always the scariest place on the circuit, so when I started off doing comedy, I left it to last. It's got a lot better, it's not nearly as laddish as it used to be; the heckling used to be a lot worse, that's calmed down a bit now. But I did find it quite an ordeal every time. The worry you had was because of the odd shape - there's a big chunk of people that stretch up towards the back of the club where you can't see - and you think that they're going to completely destroy your personality in every way possible.

'The best night I had was in an all-girls show and a load of male comics came down to sneer and watch the whole thing fall apart. And they all stood at the back with their arms folded going: 'Naw, these women can't do comedy.' And in fact it was a really brilliant night.'

MALCOLM HARDEE

'My best memory was following Harry Enfield. He'd died a complete death - they were a horrible rowdy Friday night audience - I went on and stormed it and did about 45 minutes. But to be honest, I never really liked the place; it's the wrong shape. I've got better memories of the old Store when it was in Dean Street - Alexei Sayle and all that lot - when the whole thing was just starting.'

PAUL MERTON

'I had some good stand-up there, but I think really the improv sticks with me. There was never any improv in the previous Comedy Store, so Leicester Square was where it all started. There have been some occasions in improv nights here when a scene has been so good that you have felt prickles down the back of your spine and so has the audience. And when you finish it, there's a gap, and then people go crazy. That's happened a few times. Not many, though.

'It has to be said, though, it was a terrible venue to play. It looks, just like everyone says, like an underground car park. Yet somehow it worked. The new place certainly couldn't be much worse.'

NICK REVELL

'Seeing Robin Williams (who played there on a number of occasions) was pretty fantastic and extraordinary, especially since he came unannounced. But the place holds all-round good memories - apart from being basically the first club and holding a daunting reputation for new comics, it was the place people would gather.

'Occasionally you'd see someone really flying out of their skins. I remember the Irish comedian Owen O'Neill when he was pissed one night and he got up and gave a straight recital of the Yeats poem 'He wishes for the cloths of heaven'. The audience started heckling, but he stayed on and did the poem, the whole poem, and he recited it so beautifully. He was blazing. And by the end it had worked, it was just magnificent.'

JIM TAVARE

'I remember seven years ago, having left college and doing the open spot there every Saturday night. There used to be this in-joke with the regulars to get me off within a minute. But I do feel special about the place because it was where I honed my trade. And if you did a good gig at the Comedy Store, you'd feel that you'd cracked it, that you were one of the boys.'

WOODY BOP-MUDDY

'My act involves smashing up old records. The first time I did it at the Comedy Store was in one of the Saturday night double shows. In the first show, one of the bits of a record flew off into the audience and sliced open someone's forehead. They complained to the management who said that if it happened again, I'd be out. So I went out to do the second show, tore up a Max Bygraves cover and threw it into the audience and it whipped around and the corner landed right in someone's eye. Immediately, I leapt into the audience and offered to buy the person a drink and luckily he accepted it. But it was a bit dodgy - I'd been waiting about eight years to perform in the Comedy Store and to blow it in the first evening would have been a bit much.'

The Comedy Store is now at Oxendon St, SW1 (071-344 4444)

(Photograph omitted)

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