Metropolitan Life: Where the listenin' is easy

Roulette, music, cocktails and kitsch: Nicholas Barber loses his chocolate eggs at London's newest night-club
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rom all over London they flock in their half dozens, some young, some old, some toffs, some oiks, but they all have one thing in common. They're all confused by what they find once they've finished flocking. So what is going on? "It's Las-Vegas-comes-to-Camden," explains Heilco van der Ploeg, the debonair host of Club Montepulciano. "We've got cabaret, we've got roulette - except because of gambling laws, we have to use chocolate eggs as currency."

In the corner of the club is a table with a toy roulette wheel on it. "These symbols stand for rouge et black, which means red and black," says our glamorous croupier, in an accent that's aimed at St Tropez but doesn't get further than Surrey. A desk lamp with some yellow perspex sellotaped across it gives the table that required moody effect.

At one side of the club is the busy hair stylist in plastic trousers, on the other is the souvenir shop, a stall with an exclusive range of James Bond bath products, and handmade flowers and cushions, sewn together from PVC. There's also a cocktail bar (make mine a Moon Over Montevideo) and "some of the best gourmet cuisine at any club in London". Well, you can't complain at three courses for a fiver.

Dingwalls, it has to be said, does not lend itself to recreations of Showgirls or Casino. A functionally furnished log cabin hidden behind Camden's markets, it houses a comedy club at weekends. Still, it's amazing what you can do with a mirror ball, some red sequinned drapes and superhuman suspension of disbelief. This is cheap chic, James Bond meets Blue Peter, a triumphant failure to bring Seventies sophistication into the nasty Nineties. Over the PA, muted trumpets parp, Latin rhythms jive, and the golden melodies of Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb sweeten the air. Club Montepulciano belongs, reluctantly, to the kitsch continuum that runs through Vic Reeves Big Night Out, repeats of the Avengers and the Mike Flowers Pops. But the club, says, Van der Ploeg, goes beyond Easy-Listening. "We're not Loungecore," he insists.

Montepulciano is staffed by a gang of white-suited, top-hatted, silver- lamed enthusiasts. Of these, it's not always easy to tell whose names are real and whose aren't, but as far as I can work out, Heilco van der Ploeg is genuine, as is Valerio Martinez Snr, the 68-year-old opera veteran and singing teacher who doesn't mind being billed as the Italian Perry Como. I'm not so sure about Charlie Cheese, Brucie and Tarby's bewigged showbiz pal, though; nor about tipsy torch-singer Norma Lancaster or the enormous diva Madam Tortellini, both of whom bear a remarkable resemblance to comedienne, Susan Black. These acts are simultaneously and unnecessarily shown on flickering old televisions distributed around the club. When the floor show's not happening, the TVs flash up even dafter images: videos of old adverts starring Ronald Reagan.

Heilco van der Ploeg, the postmodern Peter Stringfellow, is a spivvish teddy boy in a brown suit and a shirt with dangerously sharp collar points. He's also the singer in the 12-piece house band, Numero Uno. "There are nights of romance, moonlight and music, and there are nights of Numero Uno!" declares the sleeve of their EP. "Incidentally, 'Numero Uno' is a continental term in much use abroad. Roughly translated it means Number One or Tops." Van der Ploeg, 35, founded Club M in 1992 in South London, while he was still working in advertising.

At first he could afford to put it on just three times a year, but eventually the Club gained a regular slot in the Water Rats pub in King's Cross, and on Thursday it jumped the short distance to its new fortnightly home, Dingwalls.

The enterprise is both less and more serious than you'd expect. Less serious because this is not Easy Listening as high fashion, as it is elsewhere in London. No one's going to be thrown out because they don't know all the words to "By the Time I Get to Phoenix". It's a bunch of mates having fun and making very little money out of it. And more serious, because Van der Ploeg believes that they are providing a much-needed alternative to overpriced, one-dimensional, style-obsessed, hostile clubs. Club M is a place where people can dress up, where indie kids can take their grannies, where free cocktail snacks are handed out in the intermission ... and anyone can afford it: pounds 5.99 if you dress for the occasion, the shabby have to pay pounds 8.

Where else can you sit, stand, dance, drink, gamble chocolate eggs, see comedy, hear live music in one evening? For that matter, how did you ever survive at clubs where you couldn't get a haircut, buy some James Bond shampoo, and play Bongo's Bingo? Club M favours a "party vibe": relaxed and amateurish, rather than cynical or mean. They hand out comment slips, but the worst complaint, they claim, was from a woman who missed out on her complementary snacks. "We had her address, so we posted her a snack to make up for it," says Van der Ploeg. What did you send, a peanut? "No, an olive. God knows what state it was in when it arrived."

Could this be the future of clubbing? Easily. But not everyone thinks so. One beautiful person is not amused by the spoof magic act. "This is just silly," she frowned, and thankfully, she was right.

8 Club M is at Jongleurs, Dingwalls, Camden Lock, London NW1, on Thurs 22 February, then fortnightly; 7.30pm-2.00am (tel: 0171 924 2766)

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