Comedy: CHRIS BARRIE

Aylesbury Civic Theatre
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The Independent Culture
A nice comfy sofa, unthreatening and unassuming, sits on the stage at Aylesbury Civic Theatre waiting for Chris Barrie to open the first night of his UK mini tour: it seems appropriate for one making the crossover from sitcom notoriety into the theatrical unknown. Seldom can the sofa, symbol of the very soul of sitcom, have felt so at home in a theatre. For here was a show that was little more than a television studio recording dressed as live comedy.

What with the 30-minute "technical hitch" (read: we're still rehearsing) that delayed the show's opening, coupled with the evening's recurring sound problems, it was a wonder the director wasn't constantly calling for retakes. In the end you felt that, at pounds 10 a shout, the audience was entitled to a little more than what essentially amounted to the early workings of a pilot TV sketch-show which, Barrie fondly imagines, will one day transubstantiate into a fully fledged prime-time regular.

Not that the Home Counties aren't used to this sort of treatment. Many's the TV-based comedian who workshops raw material on the Brentwoods and Readings of the theatrical treadmill. But with the likes of Ben Elton or Lenny Henry, there's a more pressing air to their work. With Barrie you felt that the sketches were destined for the BBC's Lights Ents comedy skip.

Not that it was all bad. A spoof FA Cup draw mixed commentator cliche with Python surrealism to good effect. "Number one." "Brazil." "Versus number 16." "Mr Ian Wilmslow." "Bit of a mountain for the retired local government official to climb." And in the main, Barrie's popularity steered him through - the success of his Red Dwarf character, the hopeless hologram Rimmer, had accounted for an impressive array of Smeghead T-shirts in the pre-show lager scrum.

But somehow you expected more from the man who created the sitcom monster that is Gordon Brittas. His comedy depends on some gifted impressions, honed over the years for Spitting Image but hardly up-to-the-minute - David "extraordinary" Coleman, Prince Charles, Ronnie Corbett and, yes, Sean Connery.

His targets are just as soft-bellied - a Crimewatch spoof and a second- hand Lester Piggott tax-dodge gag for starters. Most tellingly, there were back-to-back Rowan Atkinson steals - a schoolmaster wigging, followed by a vicar's marriage ceremony - and a sketch that smacked of Newman and Baddiel's "History Today" and even featured Barrie wearing an identical rug to Baddiel's. Few marks for originality, then. The TV series looks a cert.

n Tonight, Stevenage Gordon Craig Theatre (01438 766866); tour ends 29 Jun, Croydon Fairfield Hall (0181-688 9291)

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