The Diary: Stephen Merchant; Shakespeare's Globe; Cirque du Soleil; John Cleese; X Factor

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The Independent Culture

Merchant of his own comedy wares

Ricky Gervais has been busy conquering Hollywood, most recently with the announcement that he would be presenting the next Golden Globes, but what has become of his more retiring 'Office' co-writer Stephen Merchant? He has turned to stand-up – and, on the evidence of this latest (rare) outing, he's well on the way to eclipsing Gervais's last live effort, 'Science', which received, at best, lukewarm reviews. The shy, bespectacled comedy giant, who has said that he struggled to find his voice when he first tried stand-up in the late Nineties, tried out new material at Feature Spot's 100 Club night in London and received a rapturous response. He briefly referred to "the other one", but Gervais was soon forgotten in a set of polished, eminently likeable routines about being 6ft 7in tall, the expensive business of dating and 'Blue Peter' badges. Plus there was some inspired, unexpected riffing on his many awards. Let's hope that he makes it into a full-length show and takes it on tour next year.

Globe's first lady

Well it's only taken 410 years (or 13 if you're counting from its present-day incarnation) but Shakespeare's Globe is to stage its first ever play by a female playwright. 'Bedlam', by Nell Leyshon ('Comfort Me With Apples'), is set in an institution for the insane, and is based on research from Bethlem Royal Hospital. What with Howard Brenton's eagerly awaited new play 'Anne Boleyn' and 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' coming back, 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the woman on Bankside. Not before time.

Twin swingers

Many things in a Cirque du Soleil spectacle require a double-take, none more so than the aerial-strap routine in 'Varekai', which arrives in the UK in January. It is performed by identical twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton (Andrew is the elder by three minutes) who don jet-black and blue wigs, hang from the rafters and swoop through the air, attached only by their wrists. The brothers have been part of the mega-circus troupe for nine years. Before that, they were fierce rival members of the British gymnastics team.

Cleese twigs the right comedy branch

John Cleese may have returned to the stage to fund his £12m divorce, but you'll have to go abroad if you want to see him. Of late, the comedian, 70, has restricted his appearances to Norway and New Zealand or, "as far off-Broadway as you can get while staying on this planet. You're safe that far away." In a rare interview with talented young sketch troupe Idiots of Ants (on, Cleese goes on to reveal that the Pythons were paid "incredibly little" by the BBC. "For one series I got £4,000. We were living like good bank managers." He also described his Goldilocks-like choice of the tree with which to attack his car in the immortal 'Fawlty Towers' scene. "The first time, I got a branch that was too rigid – wasn't funny. Then I got one that was much too floppy – wasn't funny. Then I got a branch that was just the right degree of floppiness – and it was hilarious. It's not just the idea, it's the execution."

'X Factor' losers in the terminal zone

For Joe McElderry, a million-pound record contract, a Christmas No 1 (probably) and Cheryl Cole's sisterly adoration. For Stacey Solomon and Olly Murs... The Gatwick Factor. The runners-up had a bumpy return to earth this week as they landed the honour of launching a new karaoke competition at the airport. The stuff dreams are made of, indeed. To win a trip to see the Northern Lights, entrants are invited to sing while waiting for their flights, as other bored passengers play Simon Cowell and vote for their favourites. It beats downing another bottle of duty-free gin until the strike ends, I suppose.