You write the reviews: Mrs Barbara Nice, Halli Vegetarian Restaurant, Leicester

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The Independent Culture

"Mrs Barbara Nice, housewife, five kids," it said in the newspaper. Here we go, I thought, dodgy-sounding venue, eff words and lots of moaning about men. Is this really how I want to spend my Sunday lunchtime?

But from the moment Mrs Nice, here as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival, pushed her way through to the stage carrying a shopping bag and three balloons and pulling a wheelie suitcase, we were in thrall to this middle-aged, universal mother in a short skirt, nylons and an exquisite Seventies hairdo.

"How much d'ye think I paid for this in a charity shop?" she began, unzipping her silver polyester quilted anorak. "Two pounds twenty-five," somebody called. "No, less." "One pound fifty." "No, more." And that was it: she was off, with the first of many auctions of thrift-store couture with her audience.

"What about these boots, two pairs for four pounds ninety-nine. Who wants two pairs of boots? And it says here in today's newspaper that pies have just gone up 50 per cent because of the floods. Now can any of you remember a pie factory sinking last October?" In her own inimitable way, she was also at pains to ensure that everyone felt part of proceedings. "Hey, could that good-looking man at the back fetch me a chair to stand on... I can't see everybody."

We sang snatches of songs from the Eighties, we made funny noises, we danced, we were five-years-old again. Out came a ball of wool. "Here, hold on to this end, what's your name?" "John." "Anybody else here named John?" She surveyed her audience. "Right, John, unwind the ball and pass it to John at the back." Working the room, she deftly made connections using names, jobs and localities; before long the whole room was entwined in red knitting wool.

This was not your traditional comedy show, with a firm line drawn between the audience and the performer. This event pulled everyone together as a whole.

For a finale, she exited by lining up all the men and launching herself above their raised arms as they passed her along to the door. Even then she hadn't finished and we were ordered to follow her out into the street.

Comedy can be so much more than a triviality: it can be a medicine. But this event went even further. In that upstairs room in an Indian restaurant was a warm and spontaneous woman bringing out the hidden joy in all of us and, in doing so, adding to the sum of human happiness. Few comedy events reach that level. No eff words and, incidentally, the Indian food was terrific.

Mary Essinger-Rogers, Author, Leicester

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