Comedy: In space, nobody can hear you laugh

CHRIS BARRIE AND NORMAN LOVETT BECK THEATRE HAYES
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The Independent Culture
SEVERAL STARSHIPS' worth of Red Dwarf devotees beamed down to the Beck Theatre in Hayes on Tuesday night for the double bill of Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett, two of the sci-fi sitcom's stars. When he asked the audience if they watched Red Dwarf, Barrie got a huge cheer. This was only surpassed when he called himself a "smeghead" - one of the series' catch-phrases - for fluffing a line.

But that was the only part of his set that achieved lift-off - Barrie is never going to set the galaxy alight with bravura comedy. Perhaps because he has not appeared live for five years, he did not always look at ease on stage. Aside from several slip-ups and a not entirely happy introductory session as Gordon Brittas, he spent far too long dwelling on the subject of football. How many routines about David Beckham and That Sending Off can the world take?

An alumnus of Spitting Image, he is an undeniably accomplished impressionist with an original choice of targets. It's the first (and perhaps will be the only) time I've heard an impersonation of the Nato spokesman Jamie Shea. Playing on Shea's estuary vowels, Barrie had him breaking into "My Old Man's a Dustman" in the middle of a military briefing. And he got mileage out of George Robertson pompously declaring that he does not sound like a Scottish version of Fuzzy Bear.

Barrie also performed a neat sequence about the Northern Ireland peace negotiators arguing over who sits where, featuring cleverly differentiated impressions of Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and David Trimble. And he received applause for doing the most unexpected impersonation of the night: Norman Lovett.

But too frequently, Barrie relied on dated impersonations - how far past their sell-by date are Ronald Reagan and Kenneth Williams? - and skilful take-offs will not always succeed in camouflaging material that is basically weak.

Lovett fared better. A more experienced performer - he was in at the very beginning of the Comedy Store - he has perfected the art of curmudgeonly comedy. "Thanks for laughing," he said at one point, sounding surprised. "It's so essential for this job. Grins are no good. I get grins walking down the road." He even managed to imbue material on such hackneyed topics as mobile phones, trains, cabs and dogs, with his brand of charm.

Despite these bright moments from Lovett, I couldn't help thinking that fans of Barrie's in search of out-of-this-world laughs might have been better served by staying at home and watching old Red Dwarf videos.

Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett are at Loughborough Town Hall (01509 231914) tonight. Their national tour continues to 30 May

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