Comedy: You see, there was this former heart-throb

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The Independent Culture
Rob Newman

Almeida, London

Having just embarked upon an economics lecture, checked himself and looked round the Almeida in mock apology. "We will get back on the comedy road," he assured us, "but we will have missed the entire Monica Lewinsky/ Viagra traffic jam." This was encouraging. And Newman was true to his word.

The Almeida may not be Wembley Arena, which he famously filled along with David Baddiel in 1993, but he seemed at home. The pair parted company the day after the Wembley gig, and while Baddiel found Frank Skinner and a whole new ball-game, Newman holed up in Kentish Town, developing an epic beer belly and writing a couple of novels.

He resurfaced at Edinburgh last year to widespread acclaim. Now he's come over all political. Having New Labour around has put the grit back into the oyster of political comedy, and Newman is as mad as hell.

He worked up a healthy sweat of indignation about the "transnational corporate government" that now rules the planet - "The owner's `rise in efficiency' is the worker's slump in the having-a-laugh-at-work index," he observed - and he was equally mordant about the media, or "corporate sock-puppets".

More problematic were the sketches, which might have been suffering from first-night blues. There was a running gag of depictions of the pictures that should but don't accompany the news (encouraging trade figures announced by a man in a boater smoking a cigar, for example). Some of it worked, some of it fell horribly flat, and there was a feeling of material being tried out.

This made for an engaging air of amateurism. A lot depends on the audience buying into Newman's amiable vulnerability and self-deprecation, and it's a card he plays with confidence. Even when the last item, a sketch involving a Maoist Four Tops infiltrating the Cabinet, failed to draw the applause intended to end the show, he shuffled ruefully back on, muttering, "Weak though that ending was, I thought I'd try it."

Another invention that didn't quite succeed but might with a bit of work was the old couple, Muriel and Hubert Lavender, who appeared at frequent intervals for surreal vignettes that were baffling rather than hysterical, with the oblique feel of a Glen Baxter or Gary Larson cartoon. Newman would probably hate to hear it, but for all the politics and new characters, the highlight was a greatest hit from his Baddiel days.

Jarvis the aristocratic pervert, resplendent in a slightly shabby smoking jacket, lives in Jarvis Mansions, where he keeps Richey Manic as his gimp- boy and holds country fairs ("I myself entered a heifer"). The old reprobate has done it all. "While I was in Los Angeles I happened to bump into that prostitute forever associated with Hugh Grant. I said to her, `Elizabeth, my dear ...' "

As Jarvis, he took us on a trip through murky Freudian waters, exploring what would happen if babies took their nourishment not though breast-feeding but through "suckling the cock": instead of breast-obsessed men, we'd have a world of penis-fixated women.

"I am single," he said, coming out of character. And as male fantasies go, his is up there with Bill Hicks's riff about what society would be like if men could give themselves oral sex: "You women would be sitting here in an empty theatre. Looking at an empty stage ..."

In the end, though, his analysis of the evils of capitalism made up the meat of the evening. Mark Thomas has put politics back on the comedy agenda, and Newman has a programme idea being considered by the suits who commission these things. With a bit of spit and polish, he might just make it back to the big time.