COMEDY / Cut out and peep: James Rampton reviews Ennio Marchetto

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ENNIO Marchetto obviously attended the Julian Clary School of Comedy. The school motto is: 'Think of a joke, then base your whole act on it.' The Italian performer's joke is to mime along to operatic and pop songs with a cardboard cut-out of the singer stuck to his body. (He is a bit like an all-singing, all-dancing version of those seaside attractions where you stick your face through a mural and instantly become a calorifically challenged person in a Victorian bathing-costume.) Fortunately, like Clary, Marchetto keeps it up rather well.

Like many a little boy who wants to grow up to be a star, Marchetto was inspired to take to the stage by a visitation from the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. At once, so the legend has it, he set aside the espresso machine he was mending in his father's Venice shop and picked up the nearest pair of scissors and sheet of cardboard to fashion a Marilyn cut-out. Thus, in one fell swoop, he progressed from Camp coffee to camp comedy.

Marchetto has now developed more than a hundred characters, which he dons and discards at a breathless rate (at the end of the hour-long show, the stage looks like Fifth Avenue after a ticker-tape rally, and you do not envy the theatre's cleaner). But Marilyn was still at the forefront of his act, bulging out of a little purple dress as she flirted her way through 'I Wanna Be Loved By You' in the very first number of Saturday's show at the newly re-opened Criterion in Piccadilly Circus. (The producer explained that the theatre might have ended up a store-room for the neighbouring Lilywhites shop, 'and instead of seats, you could have been sitting on a box of shell suits'.)

The skill of the voluptuous Venetian lies in subverting expectations. The Mona Lisa thrusts her pelvis and wiggles her tongue in a most suggestive manner, while Brunnhilde's shield changes into a foaming pint of lager. The Queen metamorphoses into Queen - complete with the lead-singer's buck-teeth, dapper 'tache and natty leather cap - as 'God Save the Queen' segues into 'I Want to Break Free'. And it must be the first time that Madonna has ever been seen with a shock of manly chest-hair.

In the manner of all self-respecting teenagers, Marchetto no doubt spent years perfecting his rock-star struts in front of the mirror in his bedroom. He accurately captures the energy of Elvis and the mince of Mercury and also does a very nice quivering top lip for Shirley Bassey's 'Goldfinger'. Sometimes, however, his caricatures do not go far enough. His Tina Turner sports a riotous explosion of Agent Orange for a hairdo, but the real thing is surely even more outrageous.

The popularity of Marchetto's show goes to support the theory that punters, bored with conventional comedy, are demanding ever wackier artists. Even his support-act involves a wandering minstrel juggling grapefruits with one hand while playing blues on a mouth-organ with the other. Stand-up comedy is dead; long live the freak show.