Comedy; Making size count

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The Independent Culture
CEREBRAL vaudeville troupe The Right Size describe the show- business sensation they are trying to create as "Beckett meets the golden age of variety". Prospective audience members might ask themselves which Beckett is being alluded to here, Samuel or Margaret? There is no doubtwhich golden age of variety we are dealing with - the imaginary one that seems to hover before the eyes of an ever-increasing number of comedy performers.

The Right Size walk the dangerous line between comedy and theatre without ever falling into the thespian abyss. Their new show, Hold Me Down, centres on the same two impeccable performers as its predecessor, Stop Calling Me Vernon. Bug-eyed but debonair Hamish McColl and graciously lumbering Sean Foley are a crazed illusionist and his reluctant assistant. They are thrown into disarray by an assassination attempt from the auditorium. Its author, Micheline Vandepoel, then turns out to be a more gifted trickster than either of them.

The theme of disintegrating boundaries between illusion and reality is all too familiar. But the execution is inspired: the jokes manage to be artful without being arch, the slapstick is elegant, and The Right Size use music the way film-makers do, as a short cut to the imagination. It's not as funny when they hit each other over the head with saucepans as when Reeves & Mortimer do it, because you can hear the actual noise it makes, but live performance does have some advantages over TV. For example, you can get audience members to stand on their chairs holding small aerials, and make your voice go all funny if they try to sit down.

When the world and his dog are trotting out of left field with their sights set on the mainstream, what can you do if you're already there? If you're Chris Barrie, the answer is swim like crazy. Having established himself as a front- rank sitcom irritant in the excellent Brittas Empire and the dreary but durable Red Dwarf, the for- mer Spitting Image mainstay is now coming out of the dressing-up box as an all-round entertainer.

Steve Coogan has talked about the nightmare career option that awaited him before his On the Hour/Knowing Me, Knowing You epiphany - to become a cut-price Rory Bremner. Bizarrely, that is the course Chris Barrie now seems to be embarking on. He swaggers about the stage in the suburban arcadia of the Hayes Beck Theatre with the exaggerated confidence of a frontier estate-agent. His touring sketch and skit show The Other Side of Chris Barrie is obviously heading for the small screen, but a lot of work needs to be done before that can be cause for celebration.

Too many of Barrie's sketches wear their debts on their sleeves, and the three women among his four supporting players get roles Hill's Angels would have scorned as too demeaning. This is a shame, because his show has some original moments - an FA cup draw of escalating absurdity in which Sammy the Penguin ends up playing the concept of beauty, or a strangely dark marriage service, in which Barrie's vicar demands "Will you grow fat and sullen, look 46 at 31?". Barrie's chat-show appearances show him to have an appealing personality beneath that nasal drawl: what this show really needs is a "This is Me" segment.

'The Other Side of Chris Barrie': Coventry Belgrade, 0120 355 3055, tonight; Dartford Orchard, 0132 222 0000, Mon; Swindon Wyvern, 0179 352 4481, Tues; Croydon Fairfield Hall, 0181 688 9291, Thurs.