Laugh? I very nearly joined the fan club

Mark Wareham has never had much time for Victoria Wood: all that bland bonhomie, those songs. So he wasn't exactly looking forward to two hours in her company. But then...
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The Independent Culture
I'll come straight out with it. I don't like Victoria Wood. Maybe we just got off on the wrong foot, I don't know, but the first and only time I saw her live was in the West End some eight years ago (she doesn't tour that often) and boy did I suffer. Her material was bland and trite, her mannerisms irritating, her humour clever-clever at the expense of comic... And then there were the songs. Paeans to the God of Cringe, her jolly piano ditties had me squirming so intensely I wore out what was left of the velvet on my once plush West End seat.

So here we go again for the first of a string of dates at London's Royal Albert Hall, rounding off an extensive sell-out schlep through the country's theatres and civic halls. One of comedy's great untouchables nonchalantly accepts a tumultuous 5,000-strong Albert Hall welcome as she bounds on to the stage... or rather 4,999-strong. Because I know what's coming, don't I?

"Ay," she begins, looking up at the cliff of seats stretching up to the roof where I'm seated glum-faced. "Well, it gets you out of the house, don't it." And it's about five minutes into the set (I know this because I've been looking at my neighbour's watch on the minute every minute) when a gag about the emergency Lilet in her handbag that doubles as an anti-mugging device (it's so old, the assailant dies of toxic shock syndrome) causes someone to erupt and, yes, spray me with their laughter spittle. I look around, indignantly at first, and then somewhat sheepishly as it registers that those laughing juices are my laughing juices. It is my laughter. I have been laughing at Victoria Wood.

You can guess the rest. The brilliance of her delivery as she leaves a punchline dangling, pausing for so long she has time to take a sip of water, before returning to finish it off with a flourish. The sheer dazzling wordplay of the writing, inviting comparisons with Alan Bennett in its pacing and dryness. And, for a performer not naturally given to audience interaction, the confidence to break off three times mid-song and shout down a zealous punter determined to start a clap-happy singalong.

Smutty without being crude, she manages the not inconsiderable feat of talking about her pubic hair - "it's all over the place, spreading, joining, clumping up... it's like some bloody rockery plant" - and making it sound almost sweet. The material is everything you'd expect from Ruby Wax or French & Saunders - cellulite, shopping, colonic irrigation - but so much better observed. And when she pulls a yellow bonnet tight over her face and dons an orange plastic mac for one of her nerdish characters, you can see who Jane Horrocks has been studying. And, get this, even the musical interludes are bearable, particularly an anti-PC lament about not being able to use a word that rhymes with "hanker".

Until she goes and spoils it all with one of those songs, those special songs, that leave you curled up with embarrassment, knees tucked tightly under your chin, as she wails a heartfelt ballad about looking for "a better day", head tossing from side to side a la Miss Piggy. It's that Mike Yarwood "and this is me" moment, when all you can do is sit there, squirming, and praying that the piano lid might come crashing down on her fingers, because her yelping would be more musical.

OK, so I'm being picky, but I still find her Mrs Normal routine irritatingly jarring. Call me a stickler, but I like my observational comedy to contain at least a germ of reality, and Victoria Wood with her bags of shopping on a number 19 bus up the Archway Road doesn't quite get there. And couldn't she please spare us the Crossroads material and burning insights into the family Christmas?

And so there I was hanging by a thread, still telling myself that I wasn't really a convert, when she came on for the finale, done up as a pulsating pink aerobics teacher, tossing her ash-blond Page-3 mane into the air while shrieking instructions at the audience. Whether or not the sketch was funny I can't recall, but as an exercise in comic bravery and, it must be said, self-ridicule, it was unsurpassable. If ever proof were needed that Victoria Wood doesn't take herself, or indeed her body, too seriously, then you only needed to see how tightly she was crammed into her one-piece (and I'd been wondering why no press photographers were allowed in). That, I'm afraid, sealed it. An education.

Royal Albert Hall, London SW1 (0171-589 8212) to 6 Oct

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