Poor Alma Cogan. She should have died hereafter. In her solo show, Live and Kidding, Maureen Lipman joins Victoria Wood as one of the few comediennes who can work a laugh out of the Fifties singer known as "The girl with the laugh in her voice". It's a smart move. Like Alma, Lipman has made a career out of being a nice Jewish (funny) girl and her five best-selling books testify to an audience hungry for her mix of self-confidence and Jewish self-deprecation.
She once told an interviewer what she considered to be the golden rule of comedy. "Tell 'em what you're gonna do, do it, and then tell 'em you've done it. They go wild and think you're wonderful because they're in on the secret." It sounds prosaic, but in the right hands, this sense of complicity works a treat, and the best moments of Live and Kidding prove her point. "You know how it is," she seems to say, before launching into another wittily observed anecdote, and for large stretches of the evening we do.
"I was a very beige child," she announces, winning us over with tales of growing up in Hull and her subsequent "hectic, eclectic, eccentric, egocentric life as an ethnic, telephobic Yorkshirewoman," not to mention being a wife, mother and actress. She talks about her son who is in China. "When I say that, most people think he's something big in Wedgwood." When she widens her canvas to talk about life as an actor, things become a little unstuck. Her song about Fiona Shaw-style cross-dressed casting is a tremendously adroit lyric which was great in the RSC's Shakespeare Revue but sounds baffling here. Worse, instead of sticking to the personal, she starts telling jokes. Not only are they not hers, several are past their sell-by date and too many sail over her audience's heads. "Why doesn't an actor look out of the window in the morning? Because then he'll have nothing to do in the afternoon," strikes an all-too-familiar chord with the 80 per cent of Equity who are out of work, but the overwhelmingly middle-aged, middle-class, well-heeled audience don't recognise the gag.
The second half is more successful. Her Joyce Grenfell sketch of an overly talkative American woman turns from rambling amusement to genuine poignancy in a single phrase and her story of almost hyperventilating with excitement ("the baby-sitter was on a life-support machine") at meeting Barbra Streisand is classic Lipman and very funny.
Her terrifying lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace is a riot. She clocks her fellow guests: "One captain of industry, one black TV newsreader, one actress, and I knew I was in the plot of an Agatha Christie ... and someone was going to die."
Laugh? I did, but this resolutely old-fashioned evening (she's even wearing New Look-style dresses) is strangely off centre. You feel worryingly disengaged watching a performer who extracts so much humour from her own persona trading on second-hand stuff. The mostly twee songs further upset the comic rhythm, which means she keeps having to pick up her own pace. She won awards playing Ruth in Bernstein's Wonderful Town. What's needed with her meandering material is a little more ruthlessness.
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