THEATRE / Truth or dare?: Paul Taylor on Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in Me and Mamie O'Rourke at the Strand Theatre

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At one point in Me and Mamie O'Rourke, two Los Angeles women - best buddies, each with man trouble - wonder if they could be repressing, in their non- physical friendship, a deep lesbian desire for one another. Using the same reasoning, it could be argued that I was in fact repressing, by my stony-faced silence, an ardent and overwhelming admiration for Mary Agnes Donoghue's comedy, that I just couldn't cope with my sheer wonder at its wit and human truthfulness.

Of course, this being one of those utterly manipulative and safe American comedies, there's not the remotest risk that either woman will discover that she's gay in the experimental snogging session that follows. And there would have been about as much risk of my laughing if the pair in question had not been played by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French.

Throughout, against all the odds, they still managed to be funny and appealing; in view of the fact, though, that the whole phoney ethos of this learning-to-live-without-lies drama, virtually sits up and begs to be subjected to a French and Saunders- style skit, you can only marvel miserably at their unnatural restraint.

The show takes place in the basement laundry of Louise (Saunders), whose failed architect husband (Sean Chapman) is wrecking the rest of the house as he converts it into a wall-less 'pod'. The charitable explanation of Louise's behaviour is that she has suffered undiagnosed brain damage from one of the pieces of flying rubble. How else can you account for her protracted failure to deduce from her spouse's lengthy, sometimes all-night, trips to the news-stand, that he's having an affair?

Looking a bit like a Cell Block H warder might if she went to a Hollywood party as Jean Harlow, in walks Dawn French's Bibi, a chef with illusions of becoming a female David Attenborough and there are periodic fantasy-interventions from a former boyfriend of Louise (Benedick Blythe), ludicrously idealised in her memory.

In the screechingly mechanical pendulum swings that ensue between delusion- propping and snarling truth sessions, it was the serious lines not the wisecracks that had me tittering. How could comedy improve on: 'You're not an animal behaviourist and you never will be. You're just a cook'?

Perhaps wisely, the two comedians perform the play, in Robert Allan Ackerman's production, as though it consisted of back-to-back sketches. Dawn French raises a few warm belly laughs with some vividly executed business. There's a nice bit where, while her friend is delivering a stream of home truths, she carries on chopping vegetables in a mounting frenzy of diverted aggression and winds up tossing an entire cabbage and a packet of celery into the pot.

And though the sequence is fundamentally spurious, the duo make the alcohol-fuelled lesbian try-out a likeable enough clown routine, French heaving herself over Saunders in a way that suggests it would be more comfortable getting fresh with Moby Dick. Maybe this deservedly popular pair are just repressing a keen desire to send it up rotten.

'Me and Mamie O'Rourke' continues to 9 April at the Strand Theatre, Aldwych, London, WC2 (Box office: 071-930 8800)

(Photograph omitted)

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