The Rheingold, a German bierkeller planted in the heart of London, was plainly once a fairly smart place. Now, it's a strange anachronism, and an appropriately odd home for the monthly Cupboard Club, which proudly bills itself as 'A True Variety Club'. The reasoning behind the Cupboard is very simple: there is no such thing as variety any more - the only events that use the label actually offer nothing but comedy. 'True Variety' includes songs, sketches, statements of personal belief, anecdotes, dance, drama and performance of every kind. There is no quality control, and nothing is predictable. A bit like life, really.
Adrian Palka and Simon Miles, the impresarios, took the idea from the Pod Baranami ('Sailor's Bar'), a celebrated cabaret in Krakow, which they came across while touring Europe with their own theatre company. They chose the name 'Cupboard' because, Miles says, 'We wanted something that was intriguing but not pretentious,' and everybody knows the sensation of clearing out a cupboard and being surprised by what they find. So far, most performers come through personal contacts - they advertised in The Face, but only one person came forward.
That's the theoretical basis: to observe it in practice, here we are in a packed and sweaty cellar on the third Tuesday in April. Palka, a large man in a baggy suit with a prominent paisley patch on one knee, is our MC for the evening: he introduces this month's theme, which should be 'pulsing around your brain' over the evening: 'Old Age and the Afterlife'.
Leaving aside Delphi and Paul, a mellow girl / boy guitar duo who pop up through the evening, the first attraction is the regular 'MAB It's a Big Horse' spot, in which a Londoner (as in 'MAB It's A Big Horse I'm a Londoner . . . ') tells his story. Today, Kurt Mueller, owner of the Rheingold, tells the history of the club - he set it up in the Fifties after a girl named Maria Koch broke his heart, hoping to meet another girl like her. Sadly, before he has really got into his stride Palka, to jeers from a charmed audience, asks him to kindly leave the stage, as time is running short. He just has time to read through his own translation of the 'Ode to Joy', and that's that.
So far, so good. Next, though, the drawbacks of the no-screening policy are painfully illustrated by a battle-of-the-sexes sketch called 'Then Man Met Woman' and a ghost story recited by a young Hungarian actress. Geraint, the photographer, who has much experience of the Edinburgh fringe, says this is worse than that: 'A light-millennium below the worst of the worst.'
After a brief interval and an actor doing a Berkoff monologue (quite good), there's another regular spot: 'Statement of Belief', this month by by Alan Law, former footballer and spiritualist. He barely has time to assert that the soul survives the body, before he's whisked off to make room for the club's star attraction - Georgina Dobson, 75 and very frail. She supports Mr Law's testimony with a spooky experience proving that cats have souls, before performing a version of 'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
She's clearly flustered by the number of people, and forgets most of her lines. It would look a little cruel if Adrian Palka, and most of the audience, weren't so protective and concerned. As it is, it's a touchingly brave performance.
Another interval, before Miles does his own act, a Greene-inspired monologue called 'The Turd Man' - less said the better. The star attraction: the great Ken Campbell, with a monologue about place-names of Newfoundland (apparently, Shove-Her-Tickles-Up-Your-Fancy is fairly typical), among other things. It has to be said, he is not at the top of his form, disorientated and unsure of himself. To a professional, the audience shows no mercy. Pretty soon, they are asking awkward questions ('Are you on drugs?'), and Adrian Palka guillotines proceedings before restlessness turns into something nastier.
The climax of the evening is a brief knees-up by the La FiFi cancan dancers of Suffolk, who make up in whoops what they lack in technique, before Palka, dressed in druidic robes, leads the audience in a chorus of 'Morning has broken' - a celebration, he says, of the forces of life and regeneration. And that's it.
Personally, I quite liked it, in parts. Geraint is less sanguine: 'Worst night out in town.' Perhaps he's right, since Simon Miles actually apologises - it's usually much better, he says (and to be fair, several members of the apparently loyal audience back him up on this).
Driving home along Oxford Street, the cab-driver offers a gloomy paraphrase of T S Eliot - 'April,' he says, 'is not a good month', which just about sums the whole thing up. Then he leans out of the window and yells at a couple of young men dozing in a doorway by the Virgin Megastore: 'Savoy full up then?' They stare back. 'Think about it,' the cabbie says. 'Bit subtle, eh?' So taking it all in all, it was quite an entertaining evening.
'The Cupboard Club' - tonight and tomorrow, The Rheingold, Sedley Place, London W1 (071-272 8862)
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