Hammersmith Carling Apollo, London W6
Opened 1 December, 2005

What do you do after you've changed the direction of British comedy? Since the League of Gentlemen's last TV series, they have been eclipsed by Little Britain (also currently on tour), whose format blends the League's grotesquerie with The Fast Show's catchphrase-mania, and made a self-referential film, The League Of Gentlemen's Apocalypse, which did not really come off. For this tour (which may mark the retirement of the fictitious denizens of the town of Royston Vasey to make way for new characters), the quartet have adopted an approach as traditional as can be: they've gone panto.

The first act consists of a series of audition pieces for theatre-in-education company Legz Akimbo's "communativity" play. At first the comedy of a number of characters seems excessively broad, until one realises that these are panto'd-up versions: Steve Pemberton as Herr Lipp utters more nudge-nudge innuendoes than any regional repertory hack, and Reece Shearsmith plays director Ollie Plimsolls as a kind of Buttons figure. Shearsmith is the most energetic audience-worker in this act: his crap magician Dean Tavalouris and aspiring actress Pamela Doove are also highlights.

His two performing colleagues (co-writer Jeremy Dyson stays off the stage) come into their own after the interval, in the panto proper. Pemberton as ballpoint fetishist Pauline enters in an absurd dame's costume and sings "It's Raining Pens", and Mark Gatiss as over-enthusiastic vet Dr Chinnery gets an audience member to put her arm up Daisy the pantomime cow's fundament. With only the three of them playing a couple of dozen roles, pacing can be a problem, only partially alleviated by scenes played before the curtain and taped sequences. And sometimes the characters' menace is squandered, as when the sinister Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith) is turned into a cheesy fake-medium. But by the time Gatiss's Mickey climbs the beanstalk to find himself in a magical local shop, the Hammersmith Apollo audience of three and a half thousand are fervently onside.

Even the panto programme is an inspired creation, with spot-on parodies of games, articles and event listings, including one which supposedly quotes a review of mine. It is a great accolade to be parodied by the League of Gentlemen, but if they think I'm going to fulfil the gag by calling their show "zany, madcap, off the wall", they've got another think coŚ oh, damn.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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