Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 7 September, 2004

One of the press blurbs outside the Apollo Theatre hails Ross Noble as "the funniest new comedian of the day", but by the time that accolade had been written this time last year, he was already on his third solo West End run. Twelve months later, with Noodlemeister, he stands poised to seize the crown of surreal-rambling comedy from reigning emperor Eddie Izzard.

It's long been an open secret that Izzard's material is much more finely honed beforehand than it superficially appears; it's principally his rather fuzzy mode of expression that creates the illusion of casting around for new conceits. In contrast, Noble hares along to the extremity of any teetering branch of bizarrerie that catches his eye, then simply swings on to another like one of the monkeys which crop up so often in his freeform gibberings.

And the amazing thing is that the majority of his output really is off the cuff. Virtually the whole of his first hour is built upon fevered imaginings about the handful of audience "marks" he picks out in the first couple of minutes. There are a very few anecdotes which he knows he will include in some form or other, but on opening night, these appeared to number two in the first half and another couple in the second. Like a bebop musician, he'll return once in a while to the established chorus for a few bars, but the rest of the time he'll just blow as the inspiration takes him.

It takes him all over the place, from a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (plainly a condition shared by Noble: "I'm like this all the time," he confesses cheerily, "you just happen to have caught the two hours when there are lights on me") yoked to a plough and lapping Ribena from a trough with its lizard-like tongue, to playing the saxophone solo to Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" on a squirrel, to a visual routine about a burqa-wearing Muslim women's brass band. Indeed, it's surprising how physical he often gets: one moment dancing a hornpipe, the next going into a graphically sustained riff about, er, intimate body waxing.

He dances along the taste boundary repeatedly, but his good nature is so genuine and infectious that he never offends. And like Ken Dodd, he can just keep going and going: two and three-quarter hours on press night. I kept stealing glances at the man two rows in front of me: Barry Cryer, the elder statesman of British comedy, was in stitches throughout. That's all the praise that's necessary.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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