Obscure historical trivia, a taste for the epic, and a delight in confusing audiences to the point of tears, usually of laughter ... welcome to the surreal world of Grinding Wheel. By Martin Plimmer
he most original new comedy act is also one of the funniest, and one of the hardest to describe. Universal Grinding Wheel is a surreal stage routine in which four intense-looking young men act out six-minute epic dramas with such names as "Congress Prepares to Meet Mrs Elizabeth Reynolds (main theme: the supremacy of pragmatism)" and "MacCallum of Ardnish, Servant of God (main theme: repentance)". That doesn't explain why they are funny, exactly. Nor do the synopses of their presentations, which I have here to help me. (I say "presentations", since the word "sketch" is somehow too... well, sketchy for formal narrative stories in which whiskery- costumed, ponderously preoccupied characters act out unlikely destinies in a timeless place where worlds collide and Death stalks the stage.)

It's easy to explain that in "Madelaine und Schmidt (main theme: the dark night of the soul)" the character Wilhelm von Strassburger is forced to follow the Devil's harmonica introduction to "Love Me Do" with an old music hall number, "Tell Me Pretty Maiden", accompanied by his two betrayers, but where, you may well ask, is the humour in that?

Grinding Wheel have this dual effect on audiences. Two years ago, they took to the Edinburgh Festival a show called A Celebration of the World's Teas, a subject they spent three months researching at the British Library Reading Room. Many people came to see the show thinking it was going to be about tea, and some actually went home thinking it had been about tea. A few complained it wasn't about tea, while others complained because members of the audience were laughing (tea is no laughing matter). One woman gave them a thank-you gift of Cyrano de Bergerac tickets, another scolded them for not once mentioning the plight of tea workers, and a Christian family came backstage to accuse them of ramming a pagan tea cult down their throats.

When I mention that they also have the unmistakable stench of Ibsen about them, they come alive. Two Grinders, the Irish brothers James and Eamonn O'Neill, were once the only people laughing during a National Theatre production of Ibsen's The Master Builder. They were told off by the usher and had to sit through the rest of the play staring hard at their shoes. "It was so sombre," says Eamonn, "that guy called Knut..."

"The things that make us laugh are things that aren't intended as comedy," says Martin Shea, an intelligent, ferrety presence, whose archaic mannerisms, combined with the absurdist visual sensibility of James and Eamonn, developed during a misspent childhood watching old films on Irish television, are most frequently blamed for the direction the group has taken. The O'Neill brothers first came together with Shea and his Cambridge friend Paul Cowdell when they were all dressed as 18th-century peasants as extras on the set of The Madness of King George. They spent the rest of the film discussing icebergs. "I'm obsessed with icebergs," says Martin. "Polar bears don't interest me - it's the ice."

In time it dawned on them that they had the same sense of humour. "When we first did the tea show we used to stop when people laughed," says Eamonn. "We'd just look at them until they stopped, then carry on, but slightly annoyed." This didn't help those members of the audience who weren't sure where they were. Nor did it win them a prime-time TV series. "Now we intend to focus on our more accessible stuff," says Martin. And they all laugh.

Each narrative is a highly concentrated version of a much longer epic drama the Grinders have ground down to the fundamental elements, a loin cloth or two, a musket and a harmonica. "For each six minutes you see, there's 30 to 40 pages of dialogue and action that has been pared down," says Martin. "We are the opposite of a spoof. Spoofs exaggerate. We minimalise."

When you read the synopses, you learn that many of the characters have limbs missing or other physical oddities, though it's impossible to deduce this from the limited perspective of the audience. One scene has a moose head on the wall, but only in the minds of the Grinding Wheel performers. One stage direction reads: "A swarm of sheep descend on the courthouse, bleating vengeance." "When we're on stage we know whether we're standing in a Victorian mansion or on a prairie covered with yellow flowers," says Martin. "`Madelaine Schmidt' takes place in 20 different rooms, but the audience doesn't know that."

What do they know? Certainly there are moments of poignant truth, as when Dr Avery stands alone undecided whether or not to accept the aliens' invitation to go with them or to remain on Earth. At that moment he epitomises that excruciating void of indecision we have all experienced. As funny as Ibsen? It's maybe too early to say, but this year's Edinburgh Festival should make a lot of people clearer about just how crucial Universal Grinding Wheel are. In the meantime, they start a six-week bill-topping residency on Monday at Madame JoJo's in Soho, London, where the resident transvestite waiters merely add to the je ne sais quoi

Universal Grinding Wheel play each Monday at the Monday Club, Madame JoJo's, 83 Wardour Street, London W1 (0171-734 2473)