Bella donna...

Michael Monkhouse watches Sarah Kendall in Italy

It's pretty tough finding decent comedy in Italy, the country where Benny Hill is considered cutting-edge and the satirical face of Not The Nine O'Clock News has condensed into Mr Bean.

It's even tougher finding quality stand-up - surely comedy in its most intense and challenging form (ask a stand-up comedian). So when I heard an English-speaking comic was in town, frankly I jumped at the chance to see her, especially when it turned out to be much-touted Aussie Sarah Kendall.

She has, after all, had the critics raving ('a lesson in how comedy should be staged,' according to the less-than-generous 'Sunday Times'), performed at festivals many would auction off their genitals to be in (and yes, that includes the terminal ball-breaker Montreal), and even been nominated for comedy's Oscar - the Perrier Award (she didn't get it of course, because she's a woman).

And yet, as I flopped down with my wine and my duffle coat and my expectations, I was a little nervy. It wasn't that the venue was Europe's equivalent of Luxembourg. It wasn't that from where I was sitting it was clearly gonna be a night looking at the back of Miss Kendall's neck. It wasn't that she was introduced by the English Theatre of Rome's distinctly Yankee headmistress. It was the fact that maybe, just maybe, I'd spent five pints' worth of hard-earned Euros on somebody who could, in the last analysis, be a piece of poo.

Then Sarah bounced on stage and changed all that. Not just because she was funny and sassy and witty, more because she was, well, positive. Because the vast majority of stand-ups (and the minority is Eddie Izzard) are only funny when they're tearing everything to shreds, and that includes us the audience.

But Sarah genuinely enjoyed being there, and that meant we could enjoy her being there too. Even better, she didn't just go into auto-pilot and rehash the tour's tired old routine, she gave herself time to settle down. And that meant chatting to the audience, with individuals in the audience. It meant comments specific to Rome, to her flight here, even to the state of the room. It meant that when she was ready to launch into the routine, she did so with aplomb. And it was, technically speaking, a belter.

Sarah comes very much from the observational tradition. She doesn't clumsily patch together a bunch of random gags and sketches and one-liners, she looks through her own distinctive lens at the whole gamut of life and towards us. And the benefits of this approach are enormous: she can really work the viewer up; she can take any subject and expose its silly side; she can turn flat lines into monsters just 'cause they're coming from this person in this situation.

You could call it comic synergy. I prefer to call it, in the words of The Scotsman, 'bloody funny'. I can't really explain why it's so bloody funny. Maybe because you can see yourself in it, like when she says how you get ripped off and later, only later, you relive it but you're so much cooler and sharper and sexier this time. Maybe it's because you agree, or maybe it's because it's offbeat, clever, or just plain bizarre.

All I can say is that Sarah, like all the best stand-ups, knows true laughter doesn't come from the sublime (nothing political here) or the ridiculous (no saucy postcard humour either), it comes from the foibles of everyday existence. She digs deep into her life and ours - brutal chat shows eulogising bitchy mothers, tedious parties where your face cracks from trying to look interested, karaoke nights where you end up singing Brown Sugar to an assortment of black women out on a hen night. Incidentally, her account of being heckled in Leeds has to be seen to be believed.

Ultimately, Sarah is a true professional. She knows when to pause, when to bellow, when to jump five feet into the air. She knows how to interact with an audience without any of the arrogance or abuse or clever-little-me pomposity that characterise lesser comics. And she knows when to give us a 15-minute peepee break when the laughs and the wit and the booze are getting too much to handle.

Any moans then? Well I must confess my heart sank when she started on high school reunions, that old US sitcom stable - but never fear, it rose again when she... Ah, go see for yourself. And okay, it got just a teensy weensy bit draggy towards the end, but that's just the nature of the situation (how many people do you know who can keep you glued to your seat for ninety minutes without props or gimmicks or a flash of flesh?), plus she was trying to irritate a good-natured heckler who had to get up rather early next day (comic synergy and all that).

Overall then, a unanimous thumbs-up for this one. And a recommendation you catch her before it's too late. Because with her CV, no doubt she'll soon be tempted by limp telly shows and turgid US sitcoms on high school reunions and, basically, big bucks for small laughs In the meantime, Sarah Kendall insists her true home is the stage. So best track her down while you still ca

Published: 27 Sep 2007

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