Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

This article is from 2019

Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

credit: Idil Sukan

We speak to some comedians to get their top memories from the legendary Edinburgh venue

The Pleasance Courtyard Cabaret Bar is one of the hallowed comedy rooms in all of Edinburgh. With its rich history featuring an array of Edinburgh Comedy Award winners, the space still has a genuine allure which intoxicates the acts who perform there. Here, we get memories from some comedians playing Edinburgh this August who have trodden the Cabaret Bar boards down the years.

Nish Kumar

You could definitely smell the history in that room and you're always aware that it's a prestige venue. I didn't want to do it; I actually got talked into doing it by Daniel Kitson because I'd seen my friends have very bad Comedy Zone gigs in there and I had lots of negative associations through that. But I'd also seen Emo Philips, Russell Howard and Pappy's in there. The Cabaret Bar is where you go and see established acts and also where you go and see younger acts struggle.

But when you think about it for a second, well of course you're going to do The Cabaret Bar. It's the closest to a stand-up club than any of the other rooms. The fact that there are different levels, the fact that there's a bar in the corner even if you don't have it open during the show, just its presence puts it in the category of a stand-up club.

And I like having people all over the place. If people have not been generous enough to only put their arse on one of the seats rather than spread it out over a couple of seats, you end up having people sat on the stairs; whilst that is a bit annoying for them, it is quite exciting. It's probably more organised than it used to be but I've been in shows where you're sat on tables at the back and there's quite an excitement and energy to that. You are aware of the Harry Hill show and John Bishop did his breakthrough show in there and you're constantly aware of the legacy.
Nish Kumar: It's in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves, Assembly George Square, 19–25 Aug, 9pm, £16–£18 (£15–£17).

Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

Al Murray

The Cabaret Bar is somewhere I truly love and adore. In 1994 when Harry Hill brought his show Pub Internationale to Edinburgh – I was on drums with the late great Matt Bradstock-Smith on keys in the punchily named Pub Band – we had booked the Cabaret Bar because it was the hottest comedy venue at the Fringe; it was the only place to play. I'd played it with Harry several years earlier in The Comedy Zone, cutting our teeth as comics.

But there's more to it than that. At the first of those shows I still hadn't come up with a way of compering the show (part of the plan was to get all of the different bits of the show on and off stage) in which a highlight was The Two Simon and Garfunkel, where Harry and Matt did a dance that's probably best described as daft. So on the opening night I said to Harry, 'how about we say the compere didn't show, and the barman has offered to fill in?' He said 'sure, give it a go'. I wrote some bits and pieces down quickly and on I went. The next day I cut off my hair and the Pub Landlord appeared in the mirror. All thanks to the Cabaret Bar. If we'd been in any other kind of room, god alone knows what I would have come up with.
Al Murray: Landlord of Hope and Glory, Assembly George Square Gardens, 2–11 Aug, 5pm, £19.50.

Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

credit: Rachel King

John Robins

For a festival where some 750 comedy shows are put on, rooms that genuinely replicate great comedy clubs (raised stage, low ceiling, a packed yet comfortable audience) are few and far between: The Stand and The Tron are good examples. But The Cabaret Bar is the best out and out room for stand-up in Edinburgh; it's also got a bar and, holy grail of holy grails, air con.

I actually did my first ever full run in The Cabaret Bar in 2007 as part of The Comedy Zone showcase. We were four new acts on in the same room as Russell Howard and Frank Skinner that year, I think, and we were incredibly lucky to experience that. And during the following nine years of shows in caves, portacabins and attics, I'd be lying if I said there weren't nights when I yearned for some of The Cabaret Bar's qualities (it doesn't leak water from the ceiling for a start).

When I was offered it for The Darkness of Robins in 2017 it was a complete no-brainer. I and Tim Vine consoled each other at the sight of the new Perspex screens they'd put in on the upper tier, but it was still absolutely perfect for the show I was performing. It's big enough to really throw lines out there and feel the laugh hit back, but small enough for the sweat and spit to fly off into the front rows, which, believe it or not, is a good thing.

The posters in the dressing room (yes, it's got one of those too!) are all from about 1998, and I can see them all now: young acts who went on to be household names, the Avalon Network tours, penises scribbled on black and white headshots of Brendon Burns, Ed Byrne and Martin Mor. And always that face of Ian Cognito, snarling at me, reminding me not to get too big for my boots and not to take it all too seriously.
John Robins: Hot Shame, Pleasance Courtyard, 3–25 Aug (not 12), 7.30pm, £14–£15 (£13–£14). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £10.

Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

Flo & Joan

Graduating to the Cabaret Bar was kind of intimidating. Each afternoon before we went on we would say a little prayer to Mel & Sue and Noel Fielding, and the past performers in their posters adorning the walls. At the end of the show we would either come back and high-five them, or apologise profusely for ever thinking we were worthy of sharing a space with their A2 cartoon heads.

Aside from the prestige and the legacy blah blah blah, the most exciting thing about our time in the Cab Bar was that our show was followed either by the Reverend Richard Coles for half the fringe, or Nicholas Parsons for the other half. They both had chat shows and so we would come off stage right into the dressing room, excited to see who their guests were going to be that day. Highlights for us included, but were not limited to Ruth Jones, Judy Murray and Christopher Biggins. It was like Blind Date, only we hadn't prepared any questions and, out of respect, we generally didn't want to shag whoever was back there.
Flo & Joan: Before the Screaming Starts, Assembly George Square Gardens, 3–25 Aug (not 10), 6pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £8.

Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

Ivo Graham

Unlike some of the one-time chancers on this list, I've had the honour of two months of my life spent trying to get laughs in the deceptively deep banter cauldron that is the Cabaret Bar. What times to be alive – 2010, with England fresh from a dismal World Cup failure, a Tory government propped up by the Lib Dems, Nicholas Parsons still somehow doing the Happy Hour, and a spotty 19-year old Ivo Graham banging on about being wanting to lose his virginity: and then 2018, with England fresh from a heroic World Cup failure, a Tory government propped up by the DUP, Nicholas Parsons STILL somehow doing the Happy Hour, and a greying 27-year-old Ivo Graham banging on about wanting to start a family (and ideally lose his virginity along the way). How far we've all come.

My only permanent contribution to the room as a teenager (where I was part of Avalon's Comedy Zone alongside Naz Osmanoglu, Davey See and double agent Josh Widdicombe) was a rash of graffiti backstage (if you're going to lock me up, you'll have to lock a lot of people up with me) marking off the 26 days/shows of the Fringe as they went by: a thrilling insight, as I returned eight years with my undercooked solo show Motion Sickness, into just what a weary old hack I was even back then. I daren't imagine how jaded I'm going to be by Cab Bar 2026.
Ivo Graham: The Game of Life, Pleasance Courtyard, 3–25 Aug, 7pm, £8.50–£12 (£7.50–£10). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £7.

Nish Kumar on The Cabaret Bar: 'You're constantly aware of the legacy'

Frank Skinner

I first played The Cabaret Bar in 1991. It was smaller then – like doing a gig in a lift – and air conditioning was still on the Pleasance's to-do list. I won the Perrier Award in '91, literally in that room. In those days the winning show would be interrupted near the end when the entire panel of judges turned up and handed over the trophy. They also gave me champagne and flowers. That was the standard package, and alcoholic winners like me had to make-do and mend.

I handed the bottle to a front-row man I'd been mercilessly ribbing all night. The judges, not realising it was a precautionary measure, seemed to interpret it as ingratitude. Then I was whisked away to have a late celebratory supper with the panel. As we left The Cabaret Bar, amidst a standing ovation, one judge whispered to me 'I voted for Eddie Izzard'. Every good supper needs a Judas.
Frank Skinner Live, Assembly George Square, 2–18 Aug, 9pm, £16.50–£17.50 (£15.50). Previews 31 Jul–1 Aug, £10.

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