Arts: Sparks of friendly friction

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The Independent Culture
THE SPONSORS were offering free cosmetic makeovers in the lobby an hour before Mel and Sue's show at the Corn Exchange in Ipswich last Tuesday. The stars themselves required no such magical transformations; they bounced on stage very much unchanged from their familiar personae on Channel 4's Late Lunch. In their first live show for several years, they displayed all those qualities that have gained their irreverent TV chat show sofa-loads of malingering-student fans. Those characteristics all tend to begin with the letter "S": sassy, saucy, sussed, sarky, oh yes, and silly.

The pair are at their best when their professionalism is at its worst. During the sketches that intersperse the banter, they often lose it completely and step out of character to take the mick out of each other's (frequent) fluffs. Helpless corpsing is not unknown. Rather than appearing self-indulgent - a distinct danger - this capacity to revel in their own incompetence is actually rather endearing.

In one skit - about two debs flatsharing in the 1960s - Mel (Giedroyc) totally forgot her lines, which prompted Sue (Perkins) to harumph that she was going off to start up a new double act with Su Pollard. The insults spilt over into the next routine when Mel recalled that as the youngest in her family, she got a lot of hand-me-downs. "What did they hand you down?" snorted Sue. "Not a memory, I gather."

This is the key to Mel and Sue's success - they could bicker for Britain. Like all the most memorable double acts - Morecambe and Wise, Reeves and Mortimer, Cannon and Ball (only kidding) - they know that audiences prefer to see fur flying rather than mutual petting. Two performers getting on like a house on fire never raised many laughs. For evidence, we need look no further than Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear.

With Mel and Sue, no opportunity to mock is missed. Where Eric Morecambe derided Ernie Wise's "short, fat, hairy legs", Sue sends up Mel's, er, less printable areas. The more chilliness a double act generates, the more an audience warms to them.

The show is not what you'd call a laugh-a-minute affair; in fact, it is decidedly uneven. Mel and Sue over-egged the pudding in performing spoof Eurovision songs both to close the first half and to open the second. And a ditty about boyfriends and relationships was hardly pushing back the frontiers of comedy.

For all that, Mel and Sue's failures largely stemmed from a commendable willingness to experiment with material - there was, for instance, great originality in a sketch about the disgusting cuts of meat people during the Second World War were forced to buy from the butcher's.

Mel and Sue's career should continue to flourish because they are full of such unusual ideas - and they never forget that friction produces the most vivid sparks.

James Rampton

Mel and Sue tour nationally to 21 May