Comedy: Dead good, dead nice: Tristan Davies reviews Victoria Wood

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The Independent Culture
THEY WERE selling Victoria Wood 'I'M DEAD COMMON' T-shirts in the foyer. With many years experience on the road and several successful television series under her belt (which has tightened a few notches since she first appeared on New Faces in 1974), Wood has made the transition from housewife's choice to housewife superstar, so she's entitled to a little merchandising. She has become a kind of piano-playing version of Alan Bennett; like him, she looks at the details of small town life and chronicles the hopes and fears of the man or woman in the street. And she can fill dead posh, dead big venues around the country with ease. At Birmingham Symphony Hall, they were arriving by the coachload to see that lovely lass from Lancaster on her latest live tour.

Make that lovely lass from Hampstead. With success has come a change of address. Her MP, as she explains, is now Glenda Jackson. ('Not impressed. The lollipop lady is Kiri Te Kanawa.') Her move from Lancashire, which has provided her with some of her best loved characters - the hairdressers and fitness fanatics of Wood and Walters, As Seen on TV and sketches passim - has added, rather than detracted from her repertoire of suburban stereotypes. The brand names may have changed - Sainsbury's has given way to Marks & Spencers, Pot Noodles for Perrier - but people, Wood demonstrates, are the same wherever they are. Different, that is. Or, as she describes it, 'barmy'.

Celebrity mothers, she explains, drawing upon her experience of Hampstead's well-heeled liberati, take at least two weeks to regain their figures after childbirth; 'real mothers carry their stomachs up to bed over one arm'. Wood chat-a-chat-chats in her camp Coronation Street drawl through a range of topics that would leave a daytime television researcher short of breath. Only when she breaks into the first of several songs is it apparent there is real artistry at work. The scheming rhymes of 'In the Mood Tonight' reveal the writer's hand ('Comedians are tough, are hard / We've all been hurt, we've all been scarred / We all do ads for Barclaycard') as something more than the kind conversation commonplace over the garden fence or at the laundromat.

Motherhood (two children by the once Great Soprendo, now her part-time script-doctor and stage-director Geoff Durham) features heavily in her act, which has always been presented as an extension of her real life. She makes the audience feel at home by making them one of the family; we join the Woods on their trip up the motorway, the stop-over at the Little Chef, and, before you know it, you've taken a detour back in time to witness the birth of her baby. By the end of the act you are on pretty intimate terms, and it is small wonder that Wood is followed from venue to venue by fans wanting to be her friend.

Wood offers Michael Palin his only realistic hope of losing his tag as Britain's Nicest Person. True, she makes the odd sour aside, but so often she sweetens it with a get-out punchline. A mild invective against the official duties of the royal family moves tantalising on to the role of the Duchess of York: 'Fergie. It's a lesson to us all . . . if you're doing a high dive, keep your stomach in.'

It makes you wonder what you have to do to get on her bad side, the side that is not smiling sweetly at the audience, batting her eyelids from under her blonde helmet of hair. Well, you could call her fat, for a start. Wood may now have to don padding to play the overweight aerobics teacher who opens her second half, but she is still sufficiently plump to make an issue of it in her act. When she moves on to the subject of Weighwatchers, she inveighs against the misery it causes 14-year-old girls with such guileless passion that it is as if inside this former fat person, still as funny as ever, is a skinny little Ben Elton desperate to get out.

Victoria Wood is on tour throughout the country. See local press for details.

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