COMEDY / Jim's vehicle's a rotten pumpkin

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MAYBE THERE is hope for this country. Jim Davidson is putting on an 'adult' panto in London's West End, Sinderella at the Cambridge Theatre, and it's not sold out. This is

odd, because whatever your opinion of Jim Davidson - loveable Charlton roughneck or one of the 10 most evil men in Europe - no one doubted that he was popular. Maybe this country's admirable system of low-key censorship, whereby really right-wing comedians are only allowed on television in game shows, is starting to take effect. Then again, maybe March is just a mad month to open a panto.

The show starts badly. 'Are there any fairies in London?' asks Mia Carla's drunken Fairy Godmother. 'Yes, John Major,' shouts the man next to me. For all the renegade, proletarian ambience, there aren't that many jokes here that might not just as easily be made by a mainstream (ie alternative) comedian. Everyone now seems to be fishing in the same pool of showbiz self-referentiality. Jim's remorselessly priapic Buttons makes frequent reference to failed marriages and drink-driving convictions. Among the supporting cast are Jess Conrad's 'ageing Sixties heart-throb', the same role he played in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (this man has deconstructed himself so many times that he is now human Meccano) and Diane Lee in the title part. If the name is not familiar, just add the prefix Peters . . .

Lee's Sinders lacks spark, but Charlie Drake (last seen as an impeccable Smallweed in the BBC's Hard Times - no one can deny this man has range) cuts a compellingly obscene figure as Baron Hard-on. He sets the tone for a production that plumbs Shakespearian heights of bawdiness. The stage is awash with giant vibrators and the pantomime horse has a huge penis, but the most striking point about Sinderella is that it overturns the sexual hierarchy. The naked flesh on display is almost all male. The show's closing line, from its rapacious Fairy Godmother, is a forthright statement of carnal intent towards Buttons.

If only Jim Davidson's attitude to race was similarly enlightened. He says that his racial jibes are just a bit of fun, but they offended me. He ties up an ugly string of them by looking round the crowd for a brown face, saying 'the shops are still open, I think we're safe'. A Jim Davidson audience provides a nightmare vision of what an all-white Britain might be like. There's a black man in the cast though: a dancer called Paul Bailey. Most of his co- hoofers learnt their trade at

the Performers Dance College in Essex. He trained with the Ballet Rambert.

At the Cambridge Junction, acerbic stand-up artiste Donna McPhail supplies a number of trenchant insights into the life of a travelling comedian. McPhail doesn't get lonely because she 'doesn't like people'. 'It's nice doing a tour,' she adds warmly, 'because you get to play places where they don't have entertainment.'

A keen and fluent cusser - 'Ladies don't swear, but luckily for me, I'm a bird' - she occasionally dulls the impact of some very sharp material by swaddling it in too many F- words. More, well-deserved television exposure might

help here. McPhail's complete guide to micturition is essential, and her elegant dismantling of the cult of Gerard Depardieu is long overdue: 'Because he's French he's a sex symbol. If he was English he'd be a dinner lady.'