Comedy: Situation vacant

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The Independent Culture

A RECENT official report lamented the dearth of good TV sitcoms. The problem is that the world conjured up by traditional sitcoms - all net curtains and tiresome neighbours popping in unannounced - no longer turns viewers on. So can the Channel 4 Sitcom Festival, the annual showcase of new writing now in its fifth year, help remedy this situation? Will it find the next Fawlty Towers?

At first, the show at the Riverside Studios in London last week seemed likely only to throw up the next 2.4 Children. Sitcom is the hardest television genre to master. But that still does not fully explain the thinness of Lipstick Terrorists, the first offering at this year's festival.

Ged Backland's comedy centred on two lippy Scouse sisters, Izzy and Frankie (Melanie Clark Pullen and Carli Norris), getting up to all sorts of scally hijinks as they struggled to pay the rent. An attempt at post-Men Behaving Badly ladette humour, it featured a flat strewn with lager cans and lots of talk about shagging and skidmarks. It came over as a cross between The Liver Birds and Harry Enfield's Scousers - without being anywhere near as funny as either. At one point, Frankie asked, "Don't you think this is getting a bit of a panto?", and I couldn't have agreed more.

The gloom was partially lifted by The Melting Pot. Although uneven, John R Gordon's script boasted the sort of characters - a sassy black businesswoman (Sandra Bee), a Jamaican spiv pretending to be a Cockney (Dennis Titus) - rarely glimpsed in the suburban universe of conventional sitcom. Also, its central dilemma - a macho man (Felix Dexter) trying to come to terms with the revelation that his brother (Titus) is gay - is not the kind of plotline that has cropped up very much in Last of the Summer Wine.

But the best was saved till last. A one-man version of Tooled Up won Stephen Powell the LWT Comedy Writing Award at last year's Edinburgh Festival - and it's not hard to see why. The expanded adaptation about four ill- matched cellmates (Powell, Dexter, Matthew Ashforde and Richard Coyle) made me laugh out loud. The bizarre climax - involving a candlelit dinner, a Russian asylum-seeker's suicide attempt, the seduction of a warder (Brenda Gilhooly) straight out of Cell Block H, and a scalpel-wielding rabbi (don't ask) - was certainly original.

It was by no means another Porridge. But at least it underlined that reports about the death of sitcom have been greatly exaggerated.

At Riverside Studios, London W6 (0181-237 1111) until 17 July