Preview: Edinburgh Fringe Previews

Judith Dornan speaks to Ian Robinson about how the modest Chorley Little Theatre attracted a flood of big names in comedy

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It seems strange to mention Wembley Stadium and Chorley Little Theatre in the same breath. But when it comes to comedy, the two venues frequently boast the same stars. Top-flight comics Russell Howard, Al Murray, Alan Carr and John Bishop have all packed the national arena – and the tiny amateur playhouse.

Since 2010, Chorley Little Theatre has drawn a remarkable quota of stars, including Live At The Electric host Russell Kane, Hebburn star Chris Ramsey, News Quiz regular Jeremy Hardy and The Thick Of It’s Chris Addison.

In fact, if you don’t come here to road test new material, then you’re clearly out of the loop. When Jack Dee returned to the stage after six years in TV, he warmed up at Chorley. Dave Gorman unveiled his Powerpoint Presentation tour there and John Bishop was the most recent visitor with a preview of his new tour.

It’s quite a triumph for a venue run by unpaid volunteers from Chorley’s Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society (CADOS), to which the theatre is home. Amazingly its success grew from a disaster that threatened to close the theatre forever. In 2009, routine renovations found an undetected leak had left the roof crumbling. Repairs would cost £275,000 – an impossible target.

Then newly elected CADOS chairman Ian Robinson, a huge comedy fan and Edinburgh Fringe regular, unveiled an inspired idea. Though the stage was unusable, he pointed out that, if the curtain was lowered, it would make a perfect backdrop for a comedian.

“It was something I had always wanted to do,” he says. “But CADOS wanted the theatre kept for their plays. Then the roof gave me the opportunity to show what could be done.”

Robinson began by enlisting local comics, including Phoenix Nights star Dave Spikey, BBC radio presenter Steve Royle and comedy veteran Jimmy Cricket. But, with little track record in booking comics, he faced much rejection at first. Then he looked to social media for help and tweeted comedian Richard Herring, who replied with his agent’s contact details.

“He was very helpful and suggested several more of his clients,” beams Robinson. “Our first show was Perrier Award winner Laura Solon in March 2010. She was great. Then Richard Herring brought his Hitler Moustache show. It went down brilliantly. He had fun and the audience really enjoyed themselves.”

With a rider that includes locally made Chorley cakes and other home comforts, word quickly spread among comics that Chorley Little Theatre was a great place to play. Geordie funnyman Chris Ramsey even left a Post-It note on his dressing room mirror, saying: “Probably my best show this year.”

Similar compliments have arrived from Howard who previewed his Right Here, Right Now Tour at the venue. Although Howard’s show received threats from the English Defence League after he skitted it on his BBC3 series Good News, the show itself went off without a hitch. Howard reportedly even ended up extending the show that night as he traded banter with the audience.

The fact that the comedy circuit is so close-knit and relies on word of mouth has clearly been a major factor in promoting the success of the venue.

The theatre also welcomes new talent and is currently running a series of Edinburgh Fringe previews. Robinson has an extensive wish list of stars including Ross Noble and Bill Bailey, but he has no doubt that word will spread soon about this fantastic theatre. “One day, they’ll come. One day, they will all come,” he laughs.

Edinburgh Fringe Previews, 26&27 July, Chorley Little Theatre, Chorley

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