Al Murray Pub Landlord: And Another Thing, Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Al serves flat beer and froth
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The Independent Culture

Al Murray's publican character has served him well for more than a decade. Like Harry Enfield's infamous decorator Loadsamoney, the pub landlord is a perfect front for an act that is essentially no-frills stand-up.

Unlike Loadsamoney, Murray has given his character real weaknesses, such as a messy personal life (tonight we are told that his divorce has finally come through), and Murray's jingoistic statements are undermined almost as soon as he utters them. So, "We needed the Iraq war to keep us match fit in case the Germans ever tried again," comes with a large side-order of irony and couldn't be mistaken for a rallying cry to an army of patriotic Nuts readers.

That said, maybe you should be slightly wary when your tongue-in-cheek catchphrases, such as "Back off Brussels", start to be marketed as T-shirts.

As well as dubious merchandise, the Murray arsenal includes large numbers of stock jokes that are aired strategically through his traditionally protracted opening banter with the audience. For example, someone's name turning out to be Celtic for something derogatory is an old favourite, as is Murray's question to women in the audience, "Family or career?", delivered in a preposterously loaded manner befitting his character's "traditional" values.

In between these set pieces (new additions tonight include throwing lettuce at a woman to whom he has just served wine because it goes with salad), there is little room for any off-the-cuff moments. When they do come, they are sometimes winning - such as teasing a vet for supposedly enjoying putting cats to sleep ("Night-night, kitty," he shrieks demonically at one point), a task that he justifiably points out is a large part of their workload.

When it comes to Murray's material, it's very much a case of employing the rhetorical rule of three, with three particular routines using three sections. We have the futility of jobs (introduced by the Landlord's nihilistic catchphrase, "Life is an endless, relentless series of grinding disappointments", as seen through the Pope, the Queen and an astronaut. Later, a routine about making people fear Hell again uses French, Dutch and Scottish versions to make the point. And finally, a section on the dearth of gentlemen suggests three ways to woo a woman.

Sadly, the above routines form something of an unholy trinity, an overextended version of a club set that can be summed up in three words: very, very average.

In among these arduous passages there are some deft touches from the boisterous publican: equating the ugliness of British bands with their ability to write a good lyric, say, or some sly remarks on the dress sense of schoolgirls and prostitutes. All told, however, there's too much froth, and the formula was found wanting as proceedings went by numbers. Some pantomime antics with an oversized euro fell flat, and made me think nostalgically of a similar ruse successfully exploited in a previous show when an oversized beach-ball globe was tossed around the audience to illustrate Britain's former Empire. Cheeky and fun at the same time.

A disappointing evening, then, but it might be premature to suggest that Murray should call time on his act. There's still plenty of interest in what he does, both over here and in America. In the UK, Murray has piloted a Saturday-night show with ITV following on from the success of his own An Audience with... show, and in the States, where Murray is likened to Archie Bunker, their incarnation of Alf Garnett, a pilot episode of a reworked Time Gentleman Please! is in the can for Fox.

On the evidence of this show, however, Murray's act does need some refurbishment before being further exposed, with plenty of room for new ideas, new formulas and more imaginative and spontaneous banter with the punters.

Touring to 3 July ( www.thepublandlord.com/tour)

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