Funny ha-ha

THEATRE Then Again... Lyric, Hammersmith
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The Independent Culture
Neil Bartlett has always delighted in arranging a dialogue between the theatre of the past and the theatre of the present, as for example in Night After Night, in which he played his own father taking his pregnant mother out to a show in 1958. That conceit became the basis for a camp, canny look at how boy-meets-girl post-war musical theatre was, in more ways than one, the paradoxical province of gay men.

His latest - simpler but wonderfully enjoyable - exercise along these lines is Then Again..., an entertainment that sets out to reinvent the art of revue with its mix of songs and sketches, its intimacy with the audience, its habit of using its polite reputation as a cover for smuggling in the improper and subversive, and its strong associations (especially in the Fifties) with the Lyric, Hammersmith where Bartlett is now artistic director.

Harold Pinter wrote material for the Lyric's 1959 show One to Another and the brilliantly funny and versatile Sheila Hancock appeared in it. Both are to be found straddling the epoch now in Then Again..., Pinter with his contribution to the Fifties revue and a new sketch, and Hancock as part of a top-notch performing team that includes, from the world of alternative comedy and improv, Dawn French and Neil Mullarkey, from the classical stage and panto, the appealingly bulky Desmond Barritt, and at the piano, John Gould, whose spiritual home is in Flanders and Swann country.

These piquant juxtapositions of generation and style are a calculated feature of the contents too. Material from the past (such as the three highly amusing pieces by NF Simpson) rub shoulders with fine, newly commissioned work by the likes of Stephen Fry, Richard Curtis and Julian Clary. This only becomes an invidious business in the case of Pinter who has a foot in both camps.

His 1959 sketch, "The Black and White", with its two dispossessed old women measuring out their lives by the buses they can spot from an all- night London cafe ("It don't look like an all-night bus in daylight, do it?") is a brilliant piece of observation and in its precise appreciative ear for the comic potential of slow, relentless banality seems to anticipate the later rabbitings of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The new sketch, "God's Own District", which has Dawn French playing a proselytising American Christian over in London to convert the populace, is a crude, largely mirthless insistence that you notice the sinister bigotry, cultural provincialism and imperialist designs of these insincerely beaming folk. A sketch about the embarrassment of having to ring up Pinter to tell him you were turning down a disguised sermon like "God's Own District" - now that would have some comic mileage.

The success rate, elsewhere, in both words and music is admirably high. I'm ashamed to say that the piece which nearly reduced me to a stretcher case I was laughing so helplessly was "A Few Words", attributed to the prolific Anon for reasons which will become evident. In it, flanked by a vicar, a bemedalled Desmond Barritt delivers a funeral oration about his friend General Sir John Scott-Trevelyan. "For 50 years," says Barritt in the sanctimonious tones of old England, "no one has called him John. So what was it about old Cunty that made him such an unforgettable character?" He was a man who knew the meaning of the words honour, responsibility, courage; it was only with the C-word he had a problem. Hearing about his consequent misadventures, you know the meaning of the word "delirious".

To 19 April. Booking: 0181-741 2311