A souvenir stall to remember : Comedy: THE CRITICS

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The Independent Culture
BILLY BUNTER'S obscene proletarian uncle, Roy "Chubby" Brown was born, and christened Royston Vasey, in war- time Grangetown - a satellite port of Middlesbrough. Once, in the dark and distant 1970s, Chubby appeared on Opportunity Knocks. How different things might have been had he not lost to a spoons player. He could now be presenting a daytime quiz on ITV instead of shift- ing scabrous videos by the hundred thousand.

Brown may not be British comedy's best-kept secret, but he's certainly its chubbiest. The dividing line in terms of his popularity is traditionally portrayed as the soft South versus the hard North. In fact it's a class barrier, not a geographical one. Chubby has been big down here for years, filling the Dominion and Hammersmith Apollo (nee Odeon) with an ease that many a bigger name would happily trade some kudos for. And there is a strong hint of the old-fashioned football crowd in the chants which presage the dimming of the Apollo lights - "Who ate all the pies? Who ate all the pies? You fat bastard, you fat bastard, you ate all the pies."

The audience's sense of renegade solidarity has been bolstered by the chance to buy some outstanding souvenir merchandise - Chubby Brown polo shirts, Chubby Brown turtleneck sweaters - and security are checking people's bags to make sure no one has a book with them. The curtain rises to reveal a lavish backdrop: a huge painting of the London skyline with - nice touch, this - a Polygram Video sign at the centre of it, and a cartoon stork flying overhead bearing an infant Chubby. Snapshots of Brown's life-story flash up on screens at either side of the stage, and the man himself finally emerges to a hero's welcome. His bizarre apparel of garish romper suit and flying-helmet-with-goggles-pushed-up is a visual catchphrase, prompting instant recognition.

For a large man, Brown is exceptionally quick on his feet. His wits are not slow, either. When the mood takes him ("Her cordon bleu should be cordoned off"; "I knew her mother was coming round- I saw the canary throw itself into the cat's mouth") he is agifted domestic griper in the Les Dawson mould. He is swift and merciless with hecklers, too - "If you were that important, the seats would be facing you". But that is not what the crowd have come for. It's filth they want, so it's filth they get.

Not for nothing is "Chubby" Bill-and-Ted-speak for erection. Brown's life's work is to make Priapus blush, and with this goal in mind he marshals an endless pudendal parade of motts, minges and bell-ends; licking his fingers, waggling his tongue and scratching his crotch in a grotesque parody of male sexuality. There is not much love around. One of Chubby's favoured euphemisms (if you can call them that - there ought to be a word for substitute expressions that are uglier than the conventional Anglo-Saxon) for the sexual act is "snap the bitch in two".

Brown says a lot of hateful things - not just about women, but about Third World poverty, homosexuality, race, Aids, the Japanese earthquake, pick a subject - but he somehow does not finally seem, as, say, Jim Davidson does, to be full of hate. And in terms of the relations between male and female, Chubby's comedy of nihilism and universal ugliness is actually no more disturbing than that of his closest within-the-political-pale rival, Frank Skinner. He's got a nice singing voice too, when he chooses touse it.

Love Cuts is the title of John Hegley's two-man show at the Bloomsbury Theatre (his downtrodden guitar-playing accomplice Nigel is in full effect), and it presents a very different, much more romantic, view of personal relationships. The love-lorn Lutonian is notoriously committed to making an emotional spectacle of himself, and his true-life confessions ("True," he observes cockily, "but not factual") of a long and painful entanglement with someone called Pat are undeniably affecting.

Hegley's three comedy musketeers - pathos, bathos and (though it may be risky to guess his after-shave at a distance) Aramis - are all in good nick. His tortured scansion and rhymeful play schemes - "Love guts the fish of what you wish for and leaves it in your airing cupboard" - may seem easy techniques to master. But as his audience prove, when asked to contribute their own verses on the Hegleyan subjects of glasses and love, they aren't.

Roy `Chubby' Brown: Stockport Davenport Theatre, 091-482 4261, Tues-Thurs; then touring.