ISSEY FOR REAL?

At first sight, Issey Ogata (right) commands attention because the very idea of a Japanese stand-up is so unusual. But there is more to him than mere novelty-value; he is actually a highly accomplished performer. With his vignettes sending up Japanese life, he is able to capture social types that transcend the language barrier. In 15 years, Ogata has developed from a building-site worker into the hottest property in Japanese live comedy - and, from Tuesday at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, we have the chance to see why.

At a recent performance I witnessed in Osaka, Ogata captivated a very young audience with a dazzling display of rubber-faced character comedy. Duncan Hamilton, an Irish actor who has acted as Ogata's translator, explains: "He tries to look at the gap between how people view themselves and how other people view them. One of his main concerns is to burst that bubble. All his characters are hopeless. Issey concentrates on people who are unintentionally dislocated from society."

Take the character of the sad, middle-aged musician who applies to a marriage bureau when his domineering mother dies. "Shared bills leading to a bit of copulation - that's what it's about, isn't it?" he stutters. "Still tied to mother's apron-strings? Me?... The perfect woman? There's only one."

Another character with universal resonance is a politician in a pinstripe suit with a pencil moustache ranting incoherently at a party conference. Like a Japanese Rowley Birkin QC, he pours forth a stream of gibberish interrupted only by the odd comprehensible phrase. "This is what Japan has to tell Britain," he babbles, "blah blah blah."

On the surface, all this may seem like an acquired taste, but I'd advise you to suck it and see. As a fan told me after the performance in Osaka: "his characters feel very close to me - they're like something out of my daily life."

Issey Ogata plays at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, W1 (0171-494 5045) from 24 Feb to 14 March

EXTRA

Such is the calibre of entries for the Hackney Empire's New Act of the Year competition that, one year, Eddie Izzard only came third. Because of its reputation, the evening has also become a magnet for agents, managers, TV researchers and PRs - one carefully-placed bomb could wipe out the entire comedy industry. Previous winners have included Alan Davies, David Baddiel, Ardal O'Hanlon, Hattie Hayridge, Rob Newman - all of whom went on to achieve TV stardom. The New Act of the Year 1998 competition, compered by Arthur Smith, is at the Hackney Empire, E8 (0181-985 2424) tonight.

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