‘York is too backward looking and lacks modern entertainment’, says departing comedy promoter

3 Jun 2016 @ 7.40 pm
| News

Fifteen years ago student Dan Atkinson started The Other Side, a weekly comedy night in York.

Five years later it was taken over by promoter Toby Jones and became the Hyena Lounge – and has delivered big names and big laughs ever since.

But the laughter stops on Saturday (June 4). Almost exactly a decade after the York Hyena Lounge was born, it will go the same way as every unprepared stand-up – and die on stage.

In the summer the lounge will stage half a dozen gigs in a swan song at the Great Yorkshire Fringe. After that the club will be gone from York completely.

“It’s going to leave a huge void,” admits promoter Toby Jones.

The last laugh… Steve Shanyaski is on the final Lounge bill
The last laugh… Steve Shanyaski is on the final Lounge bill

The reason? Stonebow House has new owners and current tenants are being kicked out, including The Duchess, home to the Hyena Lounge since 2014.

It looks as if this Saturday’s comedy line-up – featuring Steve Shanyaski, Mick Ferry, Panella Mellor and Andre Vincent – will be the last live entertainment at the Duchess.

On Thursday, York band Little Resistance played what they said was the last live music gig at the venue – although YorkMix has been unable to confirm that.

York falling behind

Big laughs at Saturday Night Lounge
Big laughs at Saturday Night Lounge

Toby tried to find a new venue for the Hyena Lounge in York. “We tried, we really tried,” he said.

“We looked at nearly ten venues. We looked at buying our own venue. We’ve looked at where else we could possibly go and there’s just nowhere.

“We’ve spent the last three or four months looking at every single avenue.”

One place that was ruled out early on was the Basement, where the club started out. A major reason they left was because “we weren’t given the dates”. The other?

“Coney Street, particularly on a Saturday night, is an absolute hellzone. It’s horrendous, a horrible place to be.”

Toby feels that York is lacking venues for live entertainment generally. And that is having an effect on the city’s night life.

He said:

In York people are very happy to jump on a train and go into Leeds.

York falls behind hugely, culturally I think. Particularly in modern culture.

It’s very much an archaic city stuck in its medieval tourism industry and tea and cakes. Moving forward, it’s not very progressive at all as a city. That’s to its detriment.

It needs somebody to come along and say let’s give people other forms of entertainment or culture, which York is desperately lacking.

At times it seems very backward looking.

Younger people don’t want to pay for entertainment, and long-term that’s a big worry, he believes.

“It’s the same if you speak to music promoters in York, if you speak to theatre groups in York: everybody’s facing the same problem, getting the people of York to go out to stuff is quite difficult.”

Star names

Over the years the Hyena Lounge has brought some top comedy talent to York.

“Pretty much everybody in comedy has played the Hyena Lounge,” Toby said. “It’s a breeding ground for up-and-coming comedians, many of them end up as household names and playing arenas.

“Comedians who wouldn’t otherwise have come to York include Sarah Millican, Russell Howard, Micky Flanagan, Rhod Gilbert, Jon Richardson… All the ones that are really big now. Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Ross Noble we put on early.

“All the ones who now regularly play the Barbican and then into arenas. The first time we ever did Micky Flanagan there were less than 30 people there.

“So we have gone from absolutely nothing with people following their careers right up to point of them becoming superstars.”

That’s often because they like coming to York.

Absolutely. It’s the only reason Russell Howard kept coming back year after year, or Sarah Millican coming back to play to 200 people.

It’s because they enjoyed the gig so much – they enjoyed the experience, they enjoyed the audiences and I think they enjoyed the venue.

Moving on

Will the Lounge return?
Will the Lounge return?

After Saturday’s show, Toby will have to load everything on the back of the van. Losing York as a venue will probably only hit him come the autumn.

And he thinks that’s when the rest of the city will start to notice too.

“If you look at how many comedy shows there are now in York comparative to say five years ago, it’s pitiful. Once we’re gone it’s woefully small.

“At that point people will start scratch their heads and hopefully start to wonder how things are changing and not for the better.”

If a new venue can be found that’s suitable he’d happily bring the laughter back.

“We’ll never say never. We’re constantly keeping our eyes open and talking to people all the time,” he said.

“It’s just finding somewhere that’s feasible.”