COMEDY / Lee's still sweet, but Skinner's sounding sour

A YEAR is a long time in comedy, and if you didn't know that Lee Evans has been busy making a series of short comedy- dramas for Channel 4 and co- starring in a Disney film with Jerry Lewis (a cynical ploy to make him big in France), it would be tempting to think he had gone underground. This is the Perrier Award-winner's first proper tour, but if he was worried that everyone might have forgotten him, the warmth of the reception he gets from a packed Lewisham Theatre should have put his mind at rest.

Except that the moment Evans's mind is at rest, his act will be finished.

This is showbiz as panic attack. One shoulder is slightly raised in a perpetual half-flinch; Evans doesn't so much deliver his lines as let them escape, like compressed air released from an over- pumped bike tyre. Perpetually poised just beyond the brink of hysteria, he must duck and dive or die. He used to box when he was younger, and now if he stays in one place for too long, or messes about and tries anything too fancy, the crowd might flatten him. 'This used to be a picture house,' he observes with his variety-heritage hat on, '. . . You don't give a shit, do you?'

Evans's personification of his audience as a dangerous beast, ready to turn on him at any moment, seems to delight them. The irony is, this is exactly how things used to be for him. Before the alternative circuit began to find his modesty and innocence beguiling, Evans died a thousand deaths in holiday camps and working men's clubs. Now he is going out among the people again and, miraculously, they like him, but he is never going to take that for granted. He might get his suits from the same tailor as Jack Dee, but he still sweats in them - 'Hot in here, no it isn't; I need some kind of guttering.'

The thing about physical comedy is that you can do it again and people will still laugh. The familiarity which breeds, well, familiarity is not a problem once Evans is in motion. Amid the delicious hamming of his 'Bohemian Rhapsody' routine, it is even possible to forget that its foundations lie in a four-letter word that begins with 'm' and rhymes with 'crime'.

A plume of blue smoke escaping the roof of the St Albans Arena signals the scabrous presence of Frank Skinner: the West Midlands Max Miller and the thinking person's Chubby Brown. Was ever a stage name better chosen?

Probably not. Would Skinner have got where he is today if someone else hadn't already been called Chris Collins, and his dad hadn't had a domino partner whose name sounded like the acme of loveable roguishness? Probably.

As his hunched figure scuttles back and forth across the stage, Frank Skinner seems to be conducting a one-to-one conversation with the entire auditorium. Beneath his poacher's anorak, Frank's T-shirt bears the legend 'Rage Against the Machine'. The coupling of this man's name with that of a fiercely puritanical political rock band seems somewhat incongruous, but he used to be in a band once, and his current popularity is such that if he actually decided to run for political office, it is hard to know who would stop him.

A country run by Frank's jauntily amoral TV persona might not be a bad place to live in, but in his off-the-leash, adults-only incarnation he is a rather scarier proposition. It's not his talent for crowd control that is disturbing - even at his most savage, Skinner is always amiable - so much as the darkness that seems to lurk near the heart of his act. 'Did you hear Frederick West's house is up for sale?' he asks in time- honoured set-them-up-to-knock- them-down fashion. 'What a horrible place that would be to live . . . Gloucester.'

This is pretty funny, in a callous sort of way; but over the course of a full-length show, the heartlessness which helps make Skinner's wit so devastating can start to ache a bit. You start to wonder if he really does think there is no more to life than football and anal sex, and if so, whether his audience actually agree with him, or are just going along with it for the purposes of comedy. Frank Skinner got in the New Lad elevator when it was still on the ground floor. Now he - and it - are at the top, maybe he should get out and look around.

Evans: Oxford Apollo, 0865 244 244544, tonight; Northampton Derngate, 0604 248111, tomorrow; then touring. Skinner: Reading Hexagon, 0734 591591, tonight; Southampton Guildhall, 0703 632601, tomorrow; then touring.

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