THEATRE / Footloose and fanciful: Get Off My Foot] - Nottingham Playhouse

Click to follow
Like all music-hall double-acts, they have their differences. One of the comics is controlled, the other impetuous; one launches the punches, the others lands them etc, etc. But with this pair, there's a bigger distinction altogether, for one of them is alive and the other dead.

The format whereby a character comes back as a posthumous plague to an erstwhile partner was inspired, the writer- performers Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson reveal in the programme, by Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), the early-Seventies cult TV series. The type of humour to which Get Off My Foot] is a sort of 'alternative' hommage hails from much further back, though.

The title was the catchphrase of Frank Randle, a popular Northern comedian of the 1940s who, offering some index of his level of sophistication, pulled all his own teeth out with pliers so that he could girn better. Noel Coward he wasn't. He was given to outrageous physical comedy offstage as well as on, once bombing Blackpool with toilet-rolls from a private plane, because it had banned him from using the F-word.

Dougie and Stanley, the young, mediocre, out-of-date double-act in the show, are Randle devotees from the next generation but one. At the start, McDermott's ganglingly impulsive, shock- haired Dougie, already dead and hazy about the circumstances of his demise like someone slowly coming round from a hangover, returns to earth determined to get to the bottom of why he popped his clogs so prematurely.

Through flashbacks, he pieces together a story of betrayal and murder in which his girlfriend, the singer and comedian Angel (Linda Dobell), two-times him with Stanley. In a manner contrived to demonstrate a Randle-style failure to keep on-stage and off-stage mayhem in separate compartments, we see the messy, obsessive emotions thrown up by the lovers' triangle infiltrate their comedy routines.

It results in a number of bitterly funny moments, as in the dentist's sketch, where amiable tomfoolery (the patient's painful swelling, like some ball in a loony tennis match, seems to flit back and forth between his cheek and those of the dentist and nurse) eventually sours into a wonderfully creepy image of exclusion, the dentist kissing the nurse to 'suck the swelling out' and the abandoned patient / comic spitting the cheek- pad prop to the floor as he stalks off in resentful disgust.

The show is uneasy, though, in ways not occasioned by the subject-matter. The dominant feature is Alice Purcell's design, the comics' grotty attic bedsit a raised, revolving cube in a dreamlike blue void. Playfully arty and abstract, with trap-doors, dummies, and miniaturised facsimiles of itself, it's handy for sight gags that muck about with scale but it seems a peculiar place in which to plant down-to-earth Northern comics of this vintage. Imagine George Formby doing a gig at the ICA and you get an inkling of the kind of piquant incongruity on display.

The most heartening feature of the evening was the youth of the healthily full audience, the use as bait of actors like Lee Simpson, who are also known for impro, TV and Comedy Store appearances, being a clever part of Nottingham Playhouse's programme under Ruth Mackenzie. Let's hope they book again for something more substantial than this patchy, if allusively haunting piece.

Runs to 22 Oct at the Nottingham Playhouse. Booking: 0602 419419

(Photograph omitted)