The Cheese Shop Hen and Chickens, London
Saturday 12 April 1997
Thankfully, sketch comedy was deader than Python's parrot until last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This saw the flowering of a huge bunch of amusing sketch teams that could silly-walk their way across a stage with ease, including Perrier Award-nominees Armstrong and Miller, The League of Gentlemen and The Cheese Shop.
It's a measure of the rivalry of these exciting groups, all jostling for a chance to wear women's clothing on their own television show, that The League of Gentlemen did the ungentlemanly thing of being in the audience checking out the wares of The Cheese Shop, who already have a Radio 4 series under their belts.
This series, broadcast in January, contained some great moments but was patchy and suffered from a live student audience who had clearly been blowing their grants in the bar well in advance of the recording.
Live, the writing glistens with inspired collisions of ideas and, occasionally, even manages to struggle free of the Python straitjacket. But, it is the performance that lifts The Cheese Shop above their contemporaries. The opening gangster sketch, the lightbulb factory soap opera, the bizarre but hilarious laughing piano sketch and their brilliant employment of running gags, all underline their skill. Their timing rarely goes awry and their talent to play to the audience is highlighted by their ability to elicit laughs with just a sidelong glance.
They only succumb to the deadly lure of the completely unfunny once, in an ill-conceived sketch about a Royal Tournament competition involving dismantling and then re-assembling a jigsaw of a cannon. As flimsy and badly constructed as the jigsaw, it was composed entirely of the team running around, climbing over furniture and shouting a lot. In short, it was slapstick that needs a good slap.
Sketch groups, like boy bands, require the individuals to possess distinct specialisms to assemble a strong team. Get lucky and you have the comedy equivalent of Take That; get it wrong and you've got comedy Boyzone: six indistinguishable blokes and an evening pondering the ceiling to look forward to.
Fortunately, The Cheese Shop fall into the former category, with a cheeky chappie, an accent expert, a gifted musician, a gurner, a victim and an all-rounder.
If, at an hour and 20 minutes, the set is too long by half an hour, it's only to be expected in a show composed of new material, but it's a confident stride forward from the Radio 4 debut and later outings should see the act being trimmed to a more audience-friendly length.
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