Literary spoofs cause a stir on the comedy circuit

Award-winning duo Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding bring their surreal brand of comedy to the stage. Paul Vallely says they will soon be household names

Actually, not even the "little and large" gag is quite as it is sold. Despite all their PR material about Maggie Fox being 6ft 2in tall and gangly, and Sue Ryding being short and dumpy, the height disparity is not so great. "I'm only 5ft 10in, actually," Fox says. "Sometimes she stands on a box for the photos," says Ryding. "But she is wearing heels, and I'm in slippers," grumbles Fox, clutching a bag of frozen peas to her lumber region. She didn't fall out of her shed so much as over in it, and has done her back in.

The Manchester-based duo, who go by the name of LipService, have written and performed 13 comedies for the stage over the past two decades, winning several awards, and establishing a dedicated fan-base, filling theatres throughout Britain but also in the United States, Germany and Eastern Europe.

They specialise in literary spoofs. They've done the Brontës (Withering Looks), Louisa May Alcott (Very Little Women), Agatha Christie (Knit One Murder One), Shakespeare (Margaret III Parts Two and Three), Greek myths (Hector's House) and Arthurian legend (The Knights of the Occasional Table). They have just finished a national tour with a Hammer spoof called Horror for Wimps. "LipService are the Laurel and Hardy of literary deconstruction," as one critic put it.

But look at the wall planner on the noticeboard in their office and you will see a three-month gap for the beginning of next year. LipService have decided that, to mark their 21st anniversary, they need a break from the 18-month cycle of conceiving, writing, producing and touring each new show. They will be writing a TV series, which they hope will attract a larger audience to their surreal brand of literary humour.

The two women met in the drama department at Bristol University in 1979. They were playing Ibsen at the time, and Ibsen lost. The audience laughed in lots of places they weren't supposed to. Something similar happened when the pair were asked to sit at the side of the stage and do the sound-effects for an experimental stage production of a radio play. They stole the show. By the end of their course they had relinquished their notions about being romantic leads and began to write stand-up.

Their first show, Girls in Orbit, centred on two women from outer space who found themselves in the Bunty annual of 1963. "We were overtly feminist in those days. We did things like Stinker Smith's Secret - she wanted to do a boy's subject, chemistry," says Ryding. Many of those in the aggressively masculine atmosphere of the alternative comedy circuit were bemused. "We were sometimes on the bill with ranting poets who whipped the audience up into a frenzy of aggression," recalls Fox, "then we came on being silly doing sketches that involved ironing boards."

But after several years of gravitating towards women's venues, they became worn down by the relentlessness of the gender politics. "At all-women gigs we used to hide the musical director behind a screen, because he was a man," remembers Fox. "Then at one gig he was spotted. 'I'm sorry to have to tell you: there's a man in the room - they can't do their show without a man!'" "We decided to take the word 'feminist' out of our publicity blurb," says Ryding.

It came around the time when the Arts Council gave them some development money - "that's what they call it when they don't give you very much", says Fox - and their tours moved up a gear, from rural arts centres in church halls to proper theatres. "We just got too old for all that 30-venues-in-five-weeks business."

That and the business of running homes and families. Both juggle the demands of being on the road with being mothers. If they are within a four-hour drive of home they motor through the night after the show to be there to get the kids off to school next morning.

Over the years LipService have produced one high-quality original comedy after another, winning several awards. "People say they are literary but they are more about interacting with popular culture," says Fox. "Withering Looks," adds Ryding, "is not so much a parody of Wuthering Heights as what everybody knows about the Brontës - that there were three of them, they wrote Pride and Prejudice and one of them was called Jane Eyre." That show sold out its entire run the day booking opened at the Edinburgh Festival's Assembly Rooms, was lined up for a West End transfer - which never materialised - and secured the pair a Radio 4 series which got them nominated for a Writers Guild Award.

The shows have usually interacted with contemporary politics.The Knights of the Occasional Table coincided with Tony Blair's first election victory in 1997 when New Labour still had the glow of Camelot about it. And Hector's House ("a torrid tale of Trojans, togas and taramasalata") in 2002 was replete with references to Peter Mandelson and the Hinduja brothers.

Their humour is hard to pigeon-hole. They are satirical, but not savage. They cross-dress without being camp, and double entendres are made and disowned in the same arched glance. It's a winning formula, and they're planning to ride the wave of the next James Bond movie with their next show. "We've got some ideas for the 14th show - based on a female Bond," says Fox. "With child-care problems," adds Ryding. "Spying, with work-life balance."