Comedy: The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You, National Indoor Arena, Birmingham <br></br> Little Britain Live, Guildhall, Portsmouth

Simmy Richman
Monday 29 April 2013 05:30

It's fair to say - in fact, they say it frequently themselves - that Little Britain would not exist were it not for The League of Gentlemen. But where the latter show was dark, demanding and deliciously twisted, Matt Lucas and David Walliams expunged an obsession with British horror and added a slapstick, Dick Emery element. The pair put saucy in the place of scary and created a national treasure in the process.

So while comedy snobs might resent Lucas and Walliams their enormous, cross-generational success, it's easy to see why the nation has taken Vicky Pollard (a pink-shellsuited Asbo on legs - catchphrase: "Yeh but, no but, yeh but, no") closer to its heart than Tubbs and Edward (a brother/sister, husband/wife pair of psychotic murderers - catchphrase: "Are you local?"). But it's not simply a case of comedy for the chavs and chav-nots - to use a musical analogy, Little Britain is Coldplay to The League of Gentlemen's Radiohead.

Because comedy has been through and survived its "new rock'n'roll" phase, there is, it seems, room in the nation's arenas and auditoriums for both. Which brings us to Birmingham's National Indoor Arena for The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You, a Christmas panto that would only be fun for all the Manson family.

Thankfully, the "neo-Brechtian, Pirandello-esque" clever-cleverness of the quartet's feature film earlier this year has given way to a riotous celebration of characters created across the three television series. Not that there isn't a cunning concept at work here: the first half finds Ollie Plimsolls, leader of the Legz Akimbo theatre troupe, auditioning Royston Vasey locals for a part in his "CommuNativity" play (Plimsolls' CV includes a play about homosexuality for nine to 12-year-olds called Everybody Out.) Sadly, Plimsolls has to abandon the whole idea when he realises that care is needed more in this community than theatre, and one of his angels (the savage middle-management stereotypes Geoff, Mike and Brian) is killed in a bizarre accident before opening night.

So the second half gives way to pure panto, with Pauline, Steve Pemberton's jobseeker-terrifying "restart" officer, as our dame. In an illuminated gown that makes Dame Edna look like a shrinking violet, Pauline - who comes on to the tune of "It's Raining Pens" - leads more Royston Vasey regulars through a series of adventures that combines elements of Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk. There is much nervous hilarity when the pantomime cow attacks a member of the audience (punchline spoiler: "The shit really has hit the fan") and plenty of opportunity for subversion of the genre: "Oh yes it fucking is!", "Oh no it fucking isn't!".

Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and the non-performing Jeremy Dyson may have sacrificed much of their televisual subtlety for big stage laughs and toilet humour, but Little Britain Live has no such concession to make. At Portsmouth's Guildhall on the third night of a tour that will take Walliams and Lucas into the middle of next year, the audience were laughing before anyone actually did anything funny. Such is the pay-off for being what even the Daily Telegraph described on Tuesday as "pure comic gold".

What is most noticeable about the live show is that the genuine laughs are mainly to be had when things don't go quite according to plan. After years of stand-up, Lucas is a confident ad-libber and Walliams - when he can control a tendency to mug that puts Robbie Williams to shame - also revels on stage, so much so that you long for his props to turn against him more often.

The best bits, though, are all Lucas. His Vicky Pollard and Dafydd ("the only gay in the village") are, as Homer Simpson once said, "funny because it's true". At its best, Little Britain crystallises personality types in such a way that those real-life characters can never be the same once they have caught sight of themselves in the mirror - Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney and Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G had a similar impact.

With no narrative, save for those spurious Tom Baker links (projected on a giant video screen that draws attention away from any costume-change pauses), Little Britain Live has something of a Punch and Judy show about it: we know what's going to happen and would be devastated if things didn't lead to their inevitable conclusion. This leaves any weaker sketches with an air of "Just say your catchphrase/wet yourself/or throw up everywhere and get off". This is also why the handful of new characters are responsible for some of the evening's most encouraging moments: the middle-aged man who is sent the wrong Thai bride from a catalogue bodes especially well for next year's third series.

And that's the strangest thing about seeing innovative comedy programmes live on stage: nobody wants them to be innovative. We go to see the greatest hits. And on that front alone, both of these shows do more than deliver.

'The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You', touring to 14 December, for details. 'Little Britain Live', touring through 2006, for details

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