THEATRE / Rik and Ade hit rock bottom: The secret of Mayall and Edmondson's roaring success? They hit each other and fall over. James Rampton reports

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The Independent Culture
THE STACK of speakers pumps out 'The House of the Rising Sun'. Fans try to push past breeze-block bouncers to a stall doing a roaring trade in tour merchandise. The speakers fall silent, the lights dim and the stars enter to a wall of whoops and wolf whistles - which heighten when one strips down to his underwear. They perform Pete Townsend-esque windmills, and young girls scream: 'WE LOVE YOU.'

This is not a Take That gig, but a stage adaptation of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson's television comedy Bottom. The genteel Portsmouth Guildhall - all neo-classical colonnades and stone lions - has probably seen nothing like it since Mayall and Edmondson were last here. When they were a spoof heavy metal band, Bad News, they had a sheep's eye and a bottle of urine thrown at them; now, Mayall and Edmondson are treated like real rock stars. They have sold out every night so far of their two-month tour.

Their popularity perplexes critics who have roundly condemned their double act as juvenile and lavatorial. Lolling around in the dressing-room before Tuesday's show, the pair have no time for carpers. 'It doesn't really rankle because they've been having a go at us since we started. Now we think we're going slightly wrong if we get a good review. The Independent is particularly nasty to us,' Edmondson, the quiet, manic one, laughs. Mayall, the loud, manic one, chips in defiantly: 'The only thing we've got on our side is ratings.' Bottom could be deemed critic-proof: as 30 Carry On films prove, the British like nothing so much as a good bottom gag.

Mayall, 35, and Edmondson, 36, have been performing as a duo since they met as students at Manchester University in 1975. Through Twentieth Century Coyote, The Dangerous Brothers, The Young Ones, Filthy, Rich and Catflap, and now Bottom, the double act has been sustained by their inexhaustible willingness to hit each other and shout a lot. One of their first joint efforts was Death on the Toilet and, without giving too much away, that's exactly what happens in Bottom.

So 18 years on, why do they still dwell on the same eternal themes of sex and death and diarrhoea? Edmondson explains: 'If something was funny 18 years ago, it'll still be funny today. We make no bones about it, these two characters have been embryonic in every single thing we've done together. Rik's the bossy, vain one, and I'm the stupid, violent one.'

That the song remains the same is the root of their appeal. Like rock concert-goers, comedy fans like to know what they're getting. The biggest cheers on Tuesday were reserved for the most predictable moments: Eddie (Edmondson) hitting Richie (Mayall) on the head with a cricket bat, and Richie scrunching Eddie's testicles with a pair of pliers. The scene that brought the house down was when Eddie used a hacksaw to remove a blow-up doll that had been superglued to Richie's privates.

Mayall, not short on self-confidence, offers this assessment of the pairing. 'Any good double act - and I think we are a good double act - is two parts of one person.' Edmondson grabs the baton: 'Although the characters are complete opposites, they can't exist without each other', and hands it on to Mayall again: 'We were watching a Morecambe and Wise video the other day, and there's one bit where Ernie leaves the screen and you feel slightly uncomfortable as Eric turns to the audience and says, 'I don't work on me own'.' Edmondson: 'You can't take away the fact that Ernie was half of Britain's best double act for 25 years. People seem to think it was all Eric now. All double acts are a partnership, and the jokes only work between the two of you.'

This is the pattern their conversation follows; they are as much a double act off-stage as on it, completing each other's sentences, mimicking one another and setting each other off on countless feedline / punchline routines. Many are of a hue that has led them to be collared by the police of the politically correct. But the pair maintain that their purpose is ironic. The act is 'about two gits who don't know anything about women', Mayall protests, 'it's not saying it's our opinion about women'.

The show contains many jabs at the solar plexus of Neanderthal man. Richie sneers at Eddie's sexual navety: 'Of course she's not gonna have an orgasm; she's a girl.' A Bottom roadie wears a T-shirt asking, 'Who needs birds when you've got your mates?' Yet over half Tuesday's audience were women.

In the packed Gents (doing especially brisk business at Bottom's end), the lads were impressed. 'I loved that bit where Eddie kicked Richie in the bollocks,' said one to another, pinpointing the show's appeal with economy. There will be plenty more where that came from. 'We'd love to write a stage-play called The Duke of Kidderminster's Problem,' Mayall enthuses, 'with me as the duke and Ade as the butler. It'd be the same sort of relationship: lots of violence and 'where are the porn mags?'.'

The 'Bottom' nationwide tour continues until 8 July.

(Photograph omitted)

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