League of Gentlemen

Gatehouse Theatre, London

An embarrassed doctor is trying to tell a patient the bad news about his test results. "Put it this way - have you ever seen Terms of Endearment? Surely you've seen Beaches. It's coming on TV in the autumn - oh, that'll be too late."

By any normal standards, terminal illness should not be a fit subject for a comedy show. But normal standards don't apply to The . Their sketches major on areas usually confined to agony columns or Oprah Winfrey's show - rape, child abuse, parental sadism, extreme violence, crushing loneliness. It's the Theatre of Cruelty - but played for laughs.

If anything, since winning the Perrier Award at Edinburgh last year, they have donned an extra coat of darkness. Often you experience the weird double-edged sensation of laughing and feeling guilty for laughing at the same time.

The trio of Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith manage to entertain rather than offend through the sheer panache of their writing and acting. As their show last Tuesday at the Gatehouse Theatre demonstrated, it often only takes a single prop or gesture for them to conjure up an entire world. Using only a thick, black belt with a macho buckle, for instance, Pemberton captures precisely the monstrosity of Pop, a gratuitously vicious Italian newsagent. As he prepares to flog his son for allowing nine Maverick bars to be stolen from his kiosk, he shouts: "all I want is for you to be a man, with a booth of your own."

And in a recurring sketch, a sad dad (Gatiss) in nerdy glasses recalls the halcyon days when his band, Creme Brulee, were beaten by Bucks Fizz in the 1981 heats of the Eurovision Song Contest. "Those punk rockers - what was all that about? Craftsmanship went out the window ... It's a shit business, I'm glad I'm out of it," he adds, choking back tears. The may not do routines which start "have you ever noticed?" or make jokes about Spangles, but that's what puts them in a league of their own.

Tues 19 & Tues 26 May, Gatehouse Theatre, Highgate, London N6 (0181-340 3488)

James Rampton