COMEDY / Formula two: James Rampton bewails a none-too-racy Smith and Jones at Stratford East

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The Independent Culture
Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones have always been better suited to the sprint than the marathon. They work best in short bursts - as anyone who saw their dire full-length feature film, Morons from Outer Space, would testify. The stage version of their conversation piece Head to Head - being recorded here for video - was a 10-second 100-metre dash, elongated into a gruelling hour- long cross-country: the participants hit the wall after about 60m.

That's not to say that the concept is unappealing. Ever since Pete and Dud, double acts have played dumb: Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies talked at cross-purposes to great effect, as did Hale and Pace's 'Management', even Mike and Bernie Winters. But Smith and Jones have raised the pub-bore duo to an art form.

The audience on Tuesday was well up for the evening. The hecklers had been on inspired form during the slick Geordie Richard Morton's support act. When the sharp-suited comic asked what Lorena Bobbitt had done with her husband's severed penis, a wag piped up: 'She gave it a suit and put it on stage.' The row in front of us were raucously reciting their favourite scenes from Blackadder throughout the interval. But somehow Head to Head never took wings; the double act, despite clearance from Air Traffic Control, remained grounded.

In their trademark white shirts and black trousers, S & J wandered on to the bare stage - adorned with just two chairs - and began with a game of 'I Spy'. From there on, it got more puerile.

Misunderstanding plays a key role in the relationship. Mel reflected on the mammoth - 'extinct'. 'I expect it did,' Griff replied. Many of the other gags relied on bathos. Mel pondered the universal questions, such as 'Where are we from?' 'Peckham,' came the razor-sharp answer.

S & J are certainly good actors; they wield Cockney know-all phrases - 'more like', 'know what I mean', 'innit' - as if they have spent a lifetime playing bit- parts in Minder. And some of the one-liners are a cut above the usual 'take my mother-in-law' fare. Griff, for instance, was worried about his daughter: 'She keeps leaving baskets of rotten fruit in the bedroom. She's treating the place like a hotel.' The best moments came when they veered off the well-beaten path of the script. 'I wouldn't forget me birthday,' said Griff, beginning to corpse, 'but I have forgotten me lines.'

The show was so static, however, you might as well have been watching the video of it in your front room (where, by the by, you could better appreciate the facial expressions crucial to many jokes). The format looks tired. Perhaps S & J should lie their Head to Head to rest.

'Head to Head': tonight and tomorrow (081-534 0310)

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