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Arts: Comedy - Almost ready to rock

ANYTHING WITH an exclamation mark in the title is to be regarded with the deepest suspicion. For proof, look no further than the wearisome Ronnie Corbett sitcom, Sorry!

But the opening night of The Festival of Fun! at Richmond Theatre yesterday proved a lot better than its title, largely thanks to the inspired musical comedian Bill Bailey. Stand-up and music are often like Cannon and Ball - a desperately unfunny combination - but Bailey manages the rare trick of being musical and amusing at the same time. His imagination is capable of conjuring up wonderfully preposterous incongruities. Who else would have dreamt up the idea of a politicised Abba singing heartfelt songs about the Nazi occupation of Finland? Or the harpsichord accompaniment to a medieval porn flick?

Bailey was well aware that the reserved Richmond audience needed a bit of coaxing out of its shell. When his early question "Are you ready to rock?" was met with polite silence, he sighed: "Not quite there yet, are we? No, you're ready for a bit of light dinner jazz, aren't you?"

Looking like a cross between Catweazle and Meatloaf, he soon got the audience going with a splendid song that went: "Beautiful ladies in danger, in danger all over the world./ I will protect them, because I am Chris de Burgh".

The evening did not, however, start in such fine style. The opening performer, Steve Best, ran through a sub-Lee Evans act which involved lots of none- too-dazzling slapstick and a regrettable routine about granny breaking wind.

Things looked up slightly with the appearance of Jeff Green. His choice of material was hardly earth-shattering - how many times have you heard a sequence about the difficulties drunk blokes have finding their front- door keys? But he has an undeniable charm and a neat way with a one-liner.

I don't know if the evening as a whole fulfilled the lofty ideal inscribed above the Richmond stage: "To wake the soul by tender strokes of art." But by the close, Bailey had made a pretty good stab at rousing the previously genteel Surrey audience into a cheering, stomping rabble. "You rocked it up in the end, Richmond," he said. "In a mildly leafy, suburban sort of way."

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper