Ross Noble: Things, Apollo Theatre, London

Off the wall, but just off the pace
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The Independent Culture

Having your house burn down and losing all your worldly goods, including an extensive collection of comedy memorabilia, is not the best way to start a tour, but such was the fate suffered by Ross Noble's Melbourne home earlier this year during the catastrophic Australian bush fires. The show, however, has indeed gone on and the climax of it is this six-week West End residency.

It's hard to say whether it is the demands of touring both here and in Australia (his adopted home where he played to stadium audiences of 10,000) or the emotional rigours of his material losses, but there's a slight and uncharacteristic sluggishness to Things. It seems I am not alone in thinking that Noble's surreal flights of fancy have dropped altitude; at one point I think I catch Noble muttering to himself ironically "excellent material there" as if he was a tennis player rebuking himself for a bad shot.

A Noble show is by definition a mixed bag of improvised, semi-improvised and prepared material and it is often up to the audience as to which one of those elements gets the upper hand. Tonight's key audience members, between whom Noble weaves his yarns, are the "pyschic" Geordie, the lady with gloopy make-up and the Michael Jackson fan to whom Noble feels he has to constantly apologise after suggesting that Jackson's death had the producers of Thriller, next door at The Lyric, "rubbing their hands going: 'brilliant, we've got an ending.'"

The Jackson gag is one of the few notable quotables of the evening and a flash of what he is capable of. Among the more sustained imaginative routines are an examination of the lizard-like qualities of Jeremy Kyle and the idea that supermarkets set up shies to sell coconuts. Elsewhere, using the Dragons' Den catchphrase of "I'm out" to mean "out of the closet" is route one, and two dimensional by his standards.

Having set himself such high standards before, there's an expectancy for moments of true elation from a Noble show. Fans traditionally leave him gifts on stage for the start of the second half of his shows and tonight is no exception. There's some nice goofing around with a pair of waterproof shoe protectors fashioned into various hats and guises, including the "wet-weather Muslim woman", though arguably the "gifts at the altar" section (an allusion strengthened by the backdrop of an inflatable Hydra-like creature and Noble's own long-haired Druid-in-black appearance) cuts into a fuller airing of prepared routines.

One of the high points of the evening is the correct prediction, at the start of the show, that about 35 minutes in, four empty seats will be occupied by latecomers who have gone to the Hammersmith Apollo by accident. He's bang on with his prediction and sends the theatre into uproar, momentarily raising the roof and the bar on his own slightly below par-performance.

To 24 October (0844 412 4658)