Royston Vasey is no match for Stouffer the Cat

The League of Gentlemen | Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells Harry Hill | Palace Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

When the League Of Gentlemen won the Perrier Award for their sadistic sketches in 1997, they were three comedians - plus one behind-the-scenes co-writer - who wore tuxedoes and used almost no props or scenery. By the time they'd transferred from stage to screen, both the material and its performers were barely recognisable. The Gents were hidden under costumes and make-up, and the sketches were linked, expanded and relocated to the atmospherically shot hellhole of Royston Vasey, thus creating a groundbreaking, genre-crossing series of gothic grotesquerie, with a bit of Dick Emery thrown in.

When the League Of Gentlemen won the Perrier Award for their sadistic sketches in 1997, they were three comedians - plus one behind-the-scenes co-writer - who wore tuxedoes and used almost no props or scenery. By the time they'd transferred from stage to screen, both the material and its performers were barely recognisable. The Gents were hidden under costumes and make-up, and the sketches were linked, expanded and relocated to the atmospherically shot hellhole of Royston Vasey, thus creating a groundbreaking, genre-crossing series of gothic grotesquerie, with a bit of Dick Emery thrown in.

On their current UK tour, the Gentlemen appear in both of their incarnations. For the first half of the show, they go back to their roots and their suits. Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have their tuxedoes on again, and they run through sketches, some old and some new, on a bare stage. For the second half, they break out the costumes, special effects and sets to recreate Royston Vasey in all its inglory. To put it another way, this latter half is the stage show of the TV series of the sketch show.

It was fun, but not a little complacent. With many of its routines having been on TV already, this half relied on the League's devotees being so fond of the series that the sight of a familiar snout or wig would get them applauding. Every character and catchphrase was greeted by a cheer, and every situation that seemed unsettlingly black on screen was reduced to pantomime by the "boos" and "aahs" of the dedicated.

The opening half, though, was sensational. There was a dagger-twist of cruelty in the humour and an unusual depth to the characterisation, but in essence, the Gentlemen were simply performing conventional sketches, each of which concluded with a punchline and a blackout. And they were an absolute treat. The acting and writing were balanced perfectly between acute observation of real life and absurd exaggeration of it, and for pathos as well as hilarity, the show was as satisfying as any West End musical or fringe drama. So why aren't there more sketch shows in theatres? The revival of the entire revue genre starts here.

Harry Hill has found it easier than most stand-ups to transfer to TV. His vision has always been so expansive and colourful that mounting song-and-dance numbers with badger puppets in a studio has seemed as natural to him as telling jokes in a club. Theatres suit him, too. His quick, nervy style would work better in a more intimate venue than the one in which I saw him, but for the price of a ticket you also get Stouffer the Cat, a slide show, a black and white film about Mother Teresa, and you get the Caterers, a keyboards-and-percussion duo, ever ready to accompany him when he bursts into a chorus of "Three Times A Lady".

A recent This Is Your Lifer, Hill is one of the few entertainers who are both mainstream vaudevillians and unfathomable surrealists. He is, in fact, the comedy Beck. Like the bizarre American, Hill peppers his material with pop culture references and he cuts and pastes disparate genres together. He keeps several jokes in the air at once - watching him is akin to flicking between different programmes while watching TV. And as with Beck's songs, the emphasis on nonsense in Hill's comedy leaves the man himself an enigma. Few of his jokes reveal anything about his personal life, and there is no swearing or sexual content to worry the families in the audience.

But it's this air of playful innocuousness which ensures that when he does make a sudden satirical remark, about Railtrack or Anthea Turner, it hits with shocking force. However successful Hill is on TV, to understand what the fuss is about you have to see him on stage. Preferably a slightly smaller stage than that of London's Palace Theatre, mind you.

League Of Gentlemen: St David's Hall, Cardiff (02920 878444) Mon; Fairfield Hall, Croydon (020 8688 9291) Tue; Alhambra Theatre, Bradford (01274 752000) Fri. Harry Hill: Palace Theatre, W1 (020 7494 5099) tonight; Derngate, Northampton (01604 624811) Wed; Civic, Wolverhampton (01902 552121) Thur; Colston Hall, Bristol (0117 922 3686) Fri

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