Comedy: Tanked up and ready for an English

Goodness Gracious Me Hackney Empire, E8
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The Independent Culture
You've watched the TV programme, you've seen the live show, now buy the T-shirt. After the sell-out performance of Goodness Gracious Me on Thursday, the merchandise-stall at the back of the Hackney Empire appeared to be doing a particularly brisk trade in T-shirts emblazoned with the show's catchphrases - "Innit", "Kiss My Chuddies", "In Your Dreams, Buddy", and "As If".

This is the surest sign that in three short years the British-Asian comedy sketch troupe have, to use rock parlance, moved from obscure indie garage band to stadium supergroup. As if to prove the point, they are rounding off their tour later this month with not one, but two gigs at the Wembley Conference Centre.

But do the Goodness Gracious Me team of Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir live up to the hype? Their best loved characters are greeted with hysterical whooping, but do they really deserve the sort of adulation usually reserved for boy bands? On balance, the answer has to be yes.

Running at more than two and a half hours, the stage-show feels too long; we could have done with fewer solo sketches from the guest performer Toby Longworth (one in which he played an unreconstructed colonial old buffer seemed especially unnecessary). For my money, the group also relied too heavily on sketches that had already been seen on television - perhaps it would have been better to have showcased more unreleased material and less from the greatest hits compilation album.

For all that, the Goodness Gracious Me company won over any doubters at their show in London's East End with their sheer panache. Ghir's routine as Chunky La Funga, the absurdly melodramatic Bollywood film star, was typical of the relish with which the team approached the evening. Done up in a medallion-man hairdo that a 1970s footballer might even have found over the top, he gyrated around stage like a demented cross between Bruce Lee and the Bee Gees.

In many ways, this show - slickly directed by Anil Gupta - is equal-opportunities comedy: the performers take the opportunity to be equally cheeky about both British and Asian people. There can't have been a white person in the theatre who wasn't simultaneously squirming and laughing at the definitive "going for an English" sketch in which a group of tanked-up Indian youngsters on a Friday night abuse the waiter at a Berni Inn in downtown Bombay. "What's the blandest thing on the menu?," demands a likely lad, while his girlfriend asks: "Can I just have a chicken curry? You know I don't like anything too bland." Using the same role-reversal technique, in a later sketch a group of Asian businessmen laugh at the unpronouncable name of their new white colleague, Jonathan.

But Asians are not spared, either. People were laughing just as heartily at Mr "Everything Comes from India" as he tried to convince his son that Superman was in fact from the sub-continent. "He runs faster than a speeding train - there's only one country where you can do that ... And look at Clark Kent. NHS glasses, bad haircut - Indian. He's got two jobs - Indian. He never takes a day off work - Indian."

The show closed with the Kapoors - the Asian family so desperate to be more British than the British that they insist their name is pronounced "Cooper" - performing their UK entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. Dressed in glittery Union Jack costumes, they crooned: "The smell of curry makes me sick,/ I'd rather have a spotted dick."

Comedy and worthiness make for deeply unhappy bedfellows, and the good thing about Goodness Gracious Me is that the sketches are never preachy. The troupe may make points along the way, but their primary objective is to be funny. Were we treated to a po-faced sermon about racial politics? In your dreams, buddy.

`Goodness Gracious Me': Birmingham Hippodrome (0121 622 7486), tonight; Manchester Bridgewater Hall (0161 907 9000), tomorrow; Sunderland Empire (0191 514 2517), Tue; Wolverhampton Civic Hall (01902 552 121), Wed; Halifax Victoria Theatre (01422 351 158), Thu; Bradford Alhambra (01274 752 000), Fri & Sat