Down at the Albert, Victoria rules OK

COMEDY

THE WAVES of laughter that Victoria Wood sends rolling round a packed Royal Albert Hall have very different sonic characters. Some are as crisp and opulent as the crunch of a Daimler's wheels on a raked gravel drive. Others have the fluctuating intensity of tidal suckback on a steep pebble beach. Either way, it's all very imposing and elemental and not at all in keeping with Wood's rather homely reputation.

Watching from high in the balcony, heads far below loll forward and back obediently, as if tugged by invisible hawsers of hilarity. The small woman on that distant stage is no domesticated love-child of Pam Ayres and Randy Newman, she is a demonic puppet-mistress - King Canute in reverse. And if the Albert Hall is going to be held in thrall by anyone (it is Wood, not the more widely feted but substantially less regal Eric Clapton, who holds the record for sold-out appearances), then it might as well be someone whose name is Victoria.

On the first night of a daunting 14-date run, she shows no sign of nerves. Hands in pockets, thumbs pointing combatively forwards, Wood's command of both her material and her crowd are pretty much absolute. With the finish line of a tour that began in spring now coming into view, the contemporary lustre of some of her topical references (Princess Di's Panorama interview, the burgeoning television CV of Kevin Whateley) is inevitably beginning to fade a little, but she is much to be commended for giving her eager fan-base an entirely new show to chew on.

Other entertainers in Wood's exalted position would be resting on their televisual laurels by now, yet she is still making the effort to mix things up a bit. Anyone suppressing a groan at the start of a joke about someone going out with an ice-skater - in expectation of the old holding-up-scorecards- after-sex pay-off - is swiftly knocked off their critical footing by a nicely judged sucker punch about "the compulsories followed by the short programme".

When you're in an auditorium with Victoria Wood (and it's the same with Eddie Izzard), there's no getting round how many people talk like her when they're trying to be funny. The fact that it's so hard to remember if her speech patterns have pervaded theirs or vice versa is further testament to her powers of psychic infiltration. And for all the Coronation-year- baby triumphalism implied by a song whose refrain is "Tee-hee, born in 53", there is no lower age-limit on her following. Many in the audience are so young that the line "Straight from 10CC to HRT, turn left at Elton John" ought to be a mystery to them.

Given all this, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about tonight's rapturously received performance that is slightly depressing. Perhaps it's that, as with the lyr- ics of Damon Albarn, there is an uncomfortable suspicion that Wood's much-vaunted flair for the everyday might actually be rooted in contempt rather than sympathy. And the objects of her scorn - women who don't enjoy sex, alternative therapists, Anthea Turner, people who eat free-range eggs - are easier targets than she pretends.

Victoria Wood is anything but prim - she will happily bandy tampons and orgasms with the Brands and Eclairs of this world; and at her best ("It was like getting Imelda Marcos out of Saxone") her linguistic precision and ready ear for bathos would be the envy of Alan Bennett. But there can be an unsavoury hint of small-mindedness about her, and it would be refreshing if, just occasionally, her comic standpoint could be other than one of aggressive common sense.

Victoria Wood: Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0171 589 8212), Tues to Sun 6 Oct, then 18 & 28 Oct.

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