The League Of Gentlemen Are Behind You, New Theatre, Oxford

Too much local anaesthetic
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The title of the show suggests an unfortunate prophecy for Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith, who have taken their macabre characters through every possible medium, be it fringe show, radio show, television show, theatre tour (their first national tour was in 2000) and, most recently, feature film, a postmodern day out for the inhabitants of Royston Vasey. This pleasing stage show, however, did not immediately suggest that this grotesque era had yet ended; more that they were having a bit of a works do, where they could let their hair down a bit and become altogether fluffier.

Though the sinister edge was left blunt - as if Hilary Briss, The Demon Butcher of Vasey, had neglected his meat cleavers - the show zips along nicely. The first half is a cohesive story of how Legz Akimbo's earnest playwright Ollie Plimsolls auditions for a "Communativity". Thus, it is an opportunity to air cameo characters such as the amateur magician Dean Tavalouris, who comes across like Edward G Robinson meets Pee-Wee Herman, and the enjoyable Herr Lipp, lascivious and prolific with his endless, slimy innuendo (for example, on his football prowess: "I was good with my head" and "I rode the most fearsome of tackle").

I wondered if I was alone in thinking that Herr Lipp's imagined kiss with a schoolboy (played by Reece Shearsmith) and, later on, cursed vet Matthew Chinnery's allusion to female parts while onstage with a girl in her early teens, a volunteer from the audience, could still be considered rather daring. Certainly, these were the more edgy moments of the show.

The less cohesive and crowd-pleasing second half parades the frontline characters as the now-abandoned "communativity" is hastily changed into the panto amalgam "Cinder Dick Gets Wood In the Seven Pussies". The formidable job-restart officer Pauline enters to "It's Raining Pens", a re-drafting of the Weather Girls' hit to suit her motif. It's a suitably brash opening from the panto dame to upend all panto dames.

The momentum is held together well by most of the "big" names aside from Pauline (including the always superbly preposterous Papa Lazarou or Abernazarou as he is tonight; and the aforementioned Chinnery). The Tattysrups portion in the local shop at the end of the show is underwhelming, however, and a chat-show sketch between female vicar and agony aunt Bernice Woodhall and one of Santa's dwarves is one of the few completely throwaway sketches.

Comparison between The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain have been made before and, with the two live shows touring concurrently, are inevitable now. Tonight's show was a reminder that the League's creations are not as catchphrase dependent as Little Britain's, and while the offering may not be the purest manifestation of Royston Vasey's finest, the dexterity of the performers and the depth of their creations are undeniable.

Touring to 14 December (see for details)