COMEDY / Poetic justice: John Hegley has extended his repertoire. Mark Wareham reports

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The Independent Culture
Poetry can be a terrible burden for the stand-up comedian. Many's the performing versemonger who has fallen into the gutter, bloodied and bowed, after attempting to tell a joke. Apologetic to the point of embarrassment, they introduce themselves along the lines of, 'Er, right, we'll get the poems out of the way as quickly as possible and then you can have a good laugh with the other acts.'

John Hegley has never made this mistake. Previously with his dog, Herman Hessian, and latterly with Nigel, his glum, put-upon guitarist, he has always found ways round the comic poet's central dilemma of rhyme being to comedy what mime is to theatre . . . a switch-off.

In his latest show, Hegley has extended his repertoire from verse and music to include some impressively choreographed David Byrne- style dance routines, notably a dance-poem called 'Graham'.

On top of the themes of trains, dogs and glasses, he currently favours spuds and garden sheds. The show, aptly titled 'John Hegley's Winter Warmer', exudes an honesty and vulnerability seldom found amid the swagger and arrogance of today's comedians. The only invective he offers is 'Glasses good, contact lenses bad'. While glasses represent a coming to terms with man's inherent weaknesses, lenses 'administer unto the cult of stultifying normality'.

But the mainstreaming of comedy can have its ups and downs, even for a performer of Hegley's stature. Shows now come with the promotional trappings of a rock gig: Heggers plays pop with CDs, cassettes, T-shirts and books on offer. This is a welcome development for someone who, only three years ago, was still facing up to the awkwardness of having to come among the punters after a show in order to flog them his own poetry pamphlets at a quid a shot.

But while Hegley has earned the right down the years to be playing full houses in decent-sized theatres, he should beware the grabbing hands of the evil promoter who now expects his clients to put on full-length two-hour shows as a matter of course. There are precious few comedians whose material is both consistent and varied enough to sustain such a timespan, and even in a show as inventive as Hegley's, audience restlessness is easily detectable. Here's hoping Hegley, comedy's poet laureate, will still be pulling in his loyal following long after the new breed of stand-up has been farmed out to host chirpy chat shows on satellite television.

Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon St, London WC1 (071-387 9629), 8pm, 26-29 Jan