Theatre: Dummy knows best

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SIX WORDS hang over ventriloquism like a cloud: Roger de Courcey and Nookie Bear. This pair embody the sense of terminal cheesiness that has long dogged the art of enjoying a preternaturally close relationship with some dummy.

But America's David Strassman aims to take ventriloquism away from the end of the pier to somewhere much more hip. To give him his due, he even comes close to managing the unthinkable - giving it cred.

There is a definite frisson in watching Strassman and his main foil, Chuck, at work. As in the film Magic, the puppet acts as the ventriloquist's evil alter ego, behaving in an outrageous manner we in polite society would never dare emulate.

The demonic Chuck articulated as much on the first night of Strassman's national tour at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge yesterday, when he sneered at Strassman: "You need me to say the things you ain't got the balls to say. No wonder you can't get laid. And why do you think you started drinking, Dave?" A man would get punched; a puppet gets laughs.

Chuck was in a similarly spiteful mood throughout the evening - and most entertaining it was. Within minutes of the start, he was haranguing late- comers. "That's right, ruin it for everyone. Can I get you anything? Like a watch?" He proceeded to head-butt Strassman for the sheer hell of it ("I learnt that in Edinburgh") and to hit on random women in the audience: "Want to come back to my place and sand me?" But that had nothing on the treatment of a man in the front row Chuck accused of stalking. Shrieking hysterically, "I think he's a woodcarver, he's got a chisel", the puppet warded him off with that reliable old standby - gobbing in his face.

More subtle were moments where Chuck heckled Strassman for stumbling on his lines and mixing up his voices. When the ventriloquist appeared to dry, his puppet derided him: "Let's just grind the show to a halt, shall we?"

Most intriguingly, Chuck also displayed the classic symptoms of "Pinocchio syndrome" - a desire to become a real flesh-and-blood boy. "I want to live on the dole," he cackled, "and pick up hookers."

The show was uneven - an alien puppet called Kevin, for instance, failed to achieve comedy lift-off - and Chuck is so foul-mouthed I couldn't recommend him to children. But this is a strikingly original night out, providing unusual insights into the mind of a performer. And as an exercise for Strassman in exorcising personal demons, it sure beats therapy.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of Saturday's paper