Comedy: Ken Dodd; Richmond Theatre

It's one of the immutable rules of comedy that if an ageing stand- up waits patiently enough, he will inevitably come back into fashion. It happened three or four times to Frankie Howerd. And now it's happening to Ken Dodd. His highly distinctive face is cropping up more and more frequently on telly, and he nestled alongside young Turks like Harry Hill, Lee Hurst and Jenny Eclair in the line-up for the Richmond Theatre Comedy Week. What a lovely day it was for becoming trendy again.

He undoubtedly has a demeanour made for comedy: electric-shock hairdo courtesy of Don King's barber, ill-matched jacket and trousers, ill-fitting tie, and teeth that endanger the eyesight of those foolhardy to book front- row seats. (His trademark gnashers are said to be insured for pounds 10,000.) The look, in other words, is just as you remembered it from all those early 1970s Saturday night television variety shows. And so is the act.

Billed as "An Evening of Happiness with Ken Dodd and Friends", it trades in the universal Carry On virtues of silliness and sauciness (which never, ever, lapses into swearing.) Many in the audience had long since received their bus passes - Dodd bid us welcome to "this magnificent branch of meals on wheels" - but a surprising number of younger faces had appeared to sample this timeless brand of stand-up (and help bump up the profits for the Knotty Ash tickling-sticks on sale in the foyer).

He made concessions to topicality with the odd joke about BSE, water board chairmen and road rage. But from the moment he staggered on stage last Wednesday waving not one but two tickling-sticks while simultaneously doing a funny walk and a funny face, you knew you were in no danger of being lacerated by the cutting edge of comedy. In a touch that dates from music-hall, his punchlines were accompanied by various "boom-boom" sound effects from the dinner-jacketed percussionist at the back of the stage. He even committed the cardinal sin in the eyes of the post-Alternative generation: he told a mother-in-law joke.

The act revolved around Dodd rattling out gags so quickly that the laughter from one punchline drowned out the next - and he kept up the cracking pace till midnight. He remains faster off the mark than Linford Christie; the moment he discovered a person in the third row was a bin man, he quipped: "When he married that woman next to him, he carried her over the threshold and dropped half of her down the path."

He punctuated the rapidfire gagging with ritual moments of self-deprecation: "I get paid by the laugh. At the moment, I owe them pounds 7.50." These became considerably more spicy as he mused about his close encounters of an Inland Revenue kind. "Hello," he reflected, "is a lovely word - unless you're saying it to a VAT inspector. I get terribly sentimental, I miss the money. We were lovers." This tack obviously elicited sympathy; when he introduced himself as "Kenneth Arthur Dodd - artist, model and failed accountant", he received a hearty round of applause.

Atop the ornate proscenium arch at the Richmond Theatre is carved a grandiose quotation stating the venue's noble aim: "to wake the soul by tender strokes of art". I don't know if Dodd quite does that, but he certainly makes people laugh.

JAMES RAMPTON

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