Last night Jenny and I got the chance to be in the audience for a recording of what will become (some percentage of) four episodes of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle season 4. Once we actually got in it was a really enjoyable experience, although as usual SRO Audiences were somewhat chaotic with their ticketing procedures.
I’d heard about the chance to get priority audience tickets from the Stewart Lee mailing list, so I applied, but the tickets I got were just their standard ones. From past experience I knew this would mean having to get there really early and queue for ages and still not be sure of getting in, so for most shows on the SRO Audiences site I don’t normally bother. As I particularly like Stewart Lee I decided to persevere this time.
The instructions said they’d be greeting us from 6.20pm, so I decided getting there about an hour early would be a good idea. I know from past experience that they massively over-subscribe their tickets in order to never ever have empty seats. That makes it very difficult to guess how early to be, and I hadn’t been to a Comedy Vehicle recording before either.
The venue was The Mildmay Club in Stoke Newington which was also the venue for all previous recordings of Comedy Vehicle. A bit of a trek from Feltham – train to Richmond then most of the way along the Overground towards Stratford; a good 90 minutes door to door. Nearest station Canonbury but we decided to go early and get some food at Nando’s Dalston first.
We got to the Mildmay Club about 5.25pm and there were already about 15 people queuing outside. Pretty soon the doorman let us in, but only as far as a table just inside the doors where a guy gave us numbered wristbands and told us to come back at 7pm.
This was a bit confusing as we weren’t sure whether that meant we were definitely getting in or if we’d still have to queue (and thus should actually come back before 7). So I asked,
“does the wristband mean we’re definitely getting in?”
“We’ll do our best to get as many people in as we can. We won’t know until 7pm,”
was the non-answer. People piling up behind us and they wanted us out of the way, so off we went.
Having already eaten we didn’t really have anything else to do, so we had a bit of an aimless wander around Newington Green for half an hour or so before arriving back outside the club again, where the queue was now a crowd bustling around the entrance and trailing off in both directions along the street. We decided to get back in the queue going to the right of the club, which was slowly shrinking, with the idea of asking if we were in the right place once we got to the front. All of the people in this queue were yet to collect their wristbands.
Having got to the front of this queue it was confirmed that we should wait around outside until 7pm, though still no idea whether we would get in or by what process this would be decided. We shuffled into the other queue to the left of the club which consisted of people like us who already had wristbands.
While in this queue, we heard calls for various colours of wristband that weren’t ours (white), and eventually all people in front of us had been called into the club. By about quarter past 6 we’d watched quite a large number of people with colourful wristbands get into the building, and we were starting to seriously consider that we might not be getting into this thing, despite the fact that we were amongst the first 15 people to arrive.
At this point a different member of staff came out and told us off for queuing to the left of the club, because
“you’re not allowed to queue past the shops”
and told us to queue to the right with all the other people who still hadn’t got wristbands yet. Various grumblings on the subject of the queue being really long and how will we know what is going on were heard, to which the response was,
“it doesn’t matter where you are, your wristbands are numbered and we’ll call people in number order anyway. You can go away and come back at 7pm if you like. Nothing is happening before 7pm.”
Well, we didn’t have anything else to do for the next 45 minutes anyway, and there was lack of trust that everyone involved was giving us the same/correct information, so we decided to remain in this mostly-linear-collection-of-people-which-was-not-a-queue-because-it-would-be-called-in-number-order.
About 6.55pm a staff member popped their head out the door and shouted,
“we’re delayed by about ten minutes but we do love you and we’ll start getting you inside soon.”
And then just a minute or two later he’s back and shouting out,
“wristband numbers below 510, come this way!”
We were 506 and 507.
The exterior of the Mildmay Club isn’t in the best condition. It looks pretty shabby. Inside though it’s quite nice. We were ushered into the bar area which is pretty much the same as the bar of every working men’s club or British Legion club that you have ever seen.
Even though we were amongst the first few white wristband people in, the room was really full already. These must have been all the priority ticket people we saw going in ahead of us. Nowhere for us to sit except the edge of a low stage directly in front of a speaker pumping out blues and Hendrix. Again we started to worry that we would not be getting in to the recording.
It must have been about 7.20pm when they started calling the colourful wristband people out of the bar and in to the theatre. The room slowly drained until it seemed like there were only about ten of us left. And then,
“white wristbands numbered 508 and below please!”
We rushed into the theatre to be confronted with mostly full seating.
“You want to be sat together don’t you?”
“Oh, just take those reserved seats, they’ve blown it now, they’re too late.”
Score! I prodded Jenny in the direction of a set of four previously reserved seats that were in a great position. We were amongst the last twenty or so people to get in. I think if we had shown up even ten minutes later to get the wristbands then we wouldn’t have made it.
In contrast to the outside of the building the theatre itself was really quite nice, very interesting decor, and surprisingly large compared to the impression you get from seeing it on television.
Stewart did two sets of 28 minute pieces, then a short interval and then another 2×28 minutes, so almost two hours. I believe there were recordings on three nights so that’s potentially 12 episodes worth of material, but given that
- All the previous series had 6 episodes.
- Stewart made a comment at one point about moving something on stage for continuity with the previous night’s recording.
then I assume there’s two recordings of each episode’s material from which they’ll edit together the best bits.
The material itself was great, so fans of Comedy Vehicle have definitely got something to look forward to. If you have previously attempted to consume Stewart Lee’s comedy and found the experience unpalatable then I don’t think anything is going to change for you – in fact it might upset you even more, to be honest. Other than that I’m not going to say anything about it as that would spoil it and I couldn’t do it justice anyway.
Oh, apart from that it’s really endearing to see Stew make himself laugh in the middle of one of his own rants and have to take a moment to compose himself.
As for SRO Audiences, I possibly shouldn’t moan as I have no actual experience of trying to cram hundreds of people into a free event and their first concern has got to be having the audience side of things run smoothly for the production, not for the audience. I get that. All I would say is that:
- Being very clear with people at wristband issuing time that they will be called in by number, and giving a realistic time for when the numbers would be called, would be helpful. This wasn’t clear for us so on the one hand we hung around being in the way a bit, but on the other hand I’m glad that we didn’t leave it until 7pm to come back because our numbers were called before 7pm and we did only just get in.
- Doing your best to turn people away early when they have no realistic chance of getting in would be good. There were loads of people with higher number wristbands than us that we did not see in the theatre later. Unsure if they got eventually sent home or if they ended up watching the recording on TV in the bar. At previous SRO Audiences recordings I’ve waited right up until show start time to be told to go home though.