Tom Sutcliffe: The ironic demise of satire

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The Independent Online

Thirty-eight years ago, give or take a couple of months, Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard opened The Establishment Club in Greek Street, London; a nightclub which has a reasonable claim to be the most influential after-hours dive of the last century. In tangential ways the Establishment Club shaped British history, establishing a beach-head for satire from which the forces of sarcasm and irreverence spread out in all directions, capturing high ground in television and publishing. At the time the fact that it was a nightclub was a way of getting round the Lord Chamberlain's cramping restrictions on what could be said and done on stage – but the bohemian surroundings added, I think, a sense of the subterranean to material that might have looked a good deal more conventional in other forms.

I found myself thinking of the Establishment the other night when I was sitting, three streets west of Greek Street, in the Soho Theatre, watching their new show Everything Must Go, for which 10 writers were invited to respond to the economic crisis in any way they saw fit. The result is a kind of theatrical revue show, with mini-plays bumped up against poetic fantasies, comic songs and even a short magic act, tweaked so that a stage illusion can comment on the psychological sleight-of-hand involved in home ownership. It's an interesting experiment which isn't entirely successful (most experiments aren't, it's worth remembering, which doesn't make them pointless, since a negative result can tell you as much as a positive one). The reason I found myself thinking of the Establishment was because I found myself wondering what had happened to cabaret.

There are moments when Everything Must Go shades into a kind of political cabaret itself – though never quite as wholeheartedly as you might have hoped. When Megan Barker takes the stage to perform a conjuring trick – piercing a cottage-shaped box with the swords of negative equity and foreclosure – you could see what such a thing might look like: hysteria reshaped into something blackly defiant. The thing is, though, that there isn't any conventional space where such a thing might be encountered on a regular basis.

One reason for that is the Establishment itself, and what it did to television. If you are looking for political satire these days there's no shortage on screen, from Have I Got News For You through to the obliquer commentary of sketch shows. It's hard to see how the economy of a live political revue would work when the appetite for irreverence is so well supplied elsewhere.

Another reason is that there simply isn't a tradition of the short theatrical piece, which means that most writers flounder when attempting it. Pinter could carry it off but he had the immeasurable advantage that audiences would receive enigmatic brevity as an exercise in the Pinter-esque – not something available to a beginner. Besides, short-form creations migrate elsewhere now – to YouTube and other online sites.

I still think it's a pity, though, that you can't drop in somewhere in Soho for a drink and work that sits between full-blown theatre, sketch and art installation. A pity, too, that Everything Must Go didn't have an MC to pull it together a little more – someone louche and charismatic to bowl the audience into each succeeding "act". We're in a time of recession, so a bit of retro Weimar brittleness wouldn't be out of keeping.

Mental journeys

The Hayward Gallery's new exhibition, Walking in My Mind, looked to me like one of those curatorial conceits that would work better on paper than in reality. Promising a set of mindscapes which allow the visitor to walk through an artist's inner consciousness, it all sounded a bit numinous and vague in the brochure. In practice the show turns out to be pleasingly coherent. Some of the works are thuddingly literal, such as Thomas Hirschhorn's Cavemanman – a grotto made out of shiny, brown packing tape and cardboard, through whose tunnels you can wander – visiting the various chambers of the brain. Curiously, though, the cartoonish directness of this "mindscape" doesn't stop it being quite a suggestive image for the hidden passages of the mind, looping round from the place you know you should be to places you suspect you shouldn't. Keith Tyson's brain-itching installation is best described by a remark scrawled one of the numerous paintings from which it is composed: "It's a cross between a drawing, a poem, an equation, a painting, an algorithm and a structure." One of the best things about the show is that you come out feeling relatively mentally uncluttered. It's like that easiest form of domestic tidying: go and visit someone who's even messier than you and it won't look so bad.

* It's a signal entry in the annals of chutzpah that AEG should have offered Jackson fans the opportunity to receive their tickets to the cancelled London concerts, provided they waived their right to a refund.

The tickets, AEG explained, were "inspired and designed by Michael Jackson for the fans" and had been produced by a "special lenticular process". The latter presumably refers to some kind of 3D flicker effect (familiar to most of us from cereal packet toys) but I take it that it is the former revelation that will most stir the desire of diehard fans. Designed by Michael Jackson? Specially for us? It would be insensitive to his memory, surely, to turn down this the opportunity to own what is now a posthumous gesture of love.

I worry though that some fans might think that AEG is cynically (and frantically) trying to dig itself out of the financial hole it now finds itself in. Perhaps they could bundle a certified vial of the singer's last breath in with the deal to make it a little more attractive to the waverers.