Still French, still Saunders and still funny

French and Saunders | Hammersmith Apollo, London
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The Independent Culture

It is some achievement that Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders have fared just as well with their solo careers as with their double act. Neither Morecambe nor Wise flourished without one another; Ronnie Barker may have found great success with Porridge, but his partner Ronnie Corbett hardly raised the roof with his sitcom Sorry!

It is some achievement that Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders have fared just as well with their solo careers as with their double act. Neither Morecambe nor Wise flourished without one another; Ronnie Barker may have found great success with Porridge, but his partner Ronnie Corbett hardly raised the roof with his sitcom Sorry!

But French and Saunders' solo successes - notably in The Vicar Of Dibley and Absolutely Fabulous - have for some time eclipsed the old partnership. Maybe that is why they have suddenly taken to the road.

For their first tour in a decade, the pair have requisitioned the help of Theatre de Complicite's Simon McBurney, an unlikely choice until you consider the director's penchant for brash melodrama. And he has done them proud.

With the help of projection cameras, a stark white backdrop seamlessly morphs into all manner of settings - a leafy park, a bourgeois living room, a huge sky with purple and pink clouds. During the first sketch, in which French and Saunders are perched on pristine white sofas still in their cellophane, it is as if we have accidentally stumbled into the Ideal Home Exhibition.

The quality of the duo's material doesn't always match up, however. They may talk at length about their conceptual approach to comedy - "This is comedy as art," cries Saunders at one stage - but theirs is an oddly old-fashioned, dare I say, formulaic format. Sketch shows were, after all, a staple of evening programming in the Eighties. And a handful of these set-pieces reveal a disappointing lack of ideas.

If you have been watching television recently, you will have noticed the endless references to Big Brother and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Well, here they are again - even the old "phone a friend" routine is wheeled out. Such are the perils of plundering the Zeitgeist that these gags already seem to be well past their sell-by dates.

French and Saunders' self-reverential moments are to be savoured, though. Those who have long suspected antipathy between them after the success of Ab Fab are in for a surprise. In a cruel send-up of the Shopping Channel, French growls: "This is a wonderful mug. Never will this mug go off with Joanna Lumley and make a series of its own".

Indeed, it is French who shines as the greatest talent. As a comic actor she is unsurpassed, perfectly capturing the ludicrousness of her characters without recourse to caricature. If there is any real rivalry between them, this show suggests that it is Dawn French who'll have the last laugh.

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