Comedy: Fringe benefits in the capital

When the League of Gentlemen bound on stage with cheesy grins and dinner jackets, the Footlights alarm bells start to ring in your head. But this is just the first of many occasions when the Perrier Award-winning sketch trio of Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith play with your expectations. Things are never as they seem in the twisted world of the League of Gentlemen.

Sketches often start pleasantly enough, before veering off in a wholly unforeseen - and usually rather nasty - direction. Shocks are their stock- in-trade. Imagine Joe Orton re-written by David Lynch and you're some way there. An innocent-looking skit about a monotonous cave-guide, for instance, soon evolves into an emotional confession of his guilt about a young boy who died there. Another harmless-seeming routine set in a joke-shop degenerates into a sadistic discussion about the joys of hot sweets which contain tongue-burning potassium.

Most unusually on a circuit jam-packed with stand-ups desperate to be loved, the League of Gentlemen are not afraid to deal with such harsh, potentially alienating subjects as child abuse, murder and bullying. The first sketch show to win the Perrier since 1985, they manage the unlikely feat of making these topics humorous through a winning combination of sharp writing and even sharper performing (all three are trained actors).

You may not feel comfortable in the company of the League of Gentlemen, but you certainly won't be bored.

Perrier Pick of the Fringe Season: League of Gentlemen & Milton Jones, Her Majesty's Theatre, London W1 (0171-494 5558) tomorrow; Graham Norton and Arj Barker, 5 Oct; Al Murray & Boothby Graffoe 12 Oct