The Two Faces Of Mitchell And Webb

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Robert Mitchell and David Webb have been teetering on the brink of the big time for a very long time, but their TV shows have tended to underperform. Now it’s the time for them to underperform on stage, too – but this time, perhaps surprisingly, in terms of consistent quality rather than audience numbers.

The main problem appears to be is that their touring show seems to assume that they have a devoted audience who will greet old favourites like the lascivious snooker commentators or nonsensical game show Numberwang with a roaring cheer. In truth, though they can pull the crowds, not one sketch gets even a polite round of applause at its conclusion until almost the end of the first half.

Mitchell and Webb are not Little Britain – nor should they want to blindly follow in their grotesque footsteps. As a rule, their sketches are subtler, driven by awkwardness and doubt, rather than catchphrases, and are al the better for it.

But without that panto feeling, what you’re left with a show that pretty much recreates verbatim their previous work, with little acknowledgement they’re in a live environment now. No wonder the response is muted, it’s like watching TV in the front room. Those snooker commentators, for instance, started on the radio, and they haven’t evolved since. You can close your eyes when they’re on stage and lose nothing.

Nor are these two like comedy’s other M&W, able to step in front of the curtain and chat to the audience as a heightened versions of their real selves as Eric and Ern so brilliantly did. Towards the end of the show, they do seem to relax more, and events become more fluid, and more enjoyable for it. The duo ad-lib as they solicit Big Questions for aggressive panel show Big Talk from the audience; Robert teases David for gratuitously dropping in local Cambridge references just because he was a student here; and they have to spontaneously cope with the all-too frequent technical shambles that mean the show still has an unfortunate amateur feel a week into its run.

It would be nice to see more of the ‘real’ them outside of the tightly-scripted sketches – however good they are. And it’s a technique they’ve already harnessed on their BBC Three with the supposedly ‘unguarded’ moments between takes. But here, the costume-change gaps are filled with their able supporting cast, Abigail Burdess and James Bachman, forever trying to launch into their own vaudeville routines. It’s a decent enough joke, but does lead to the feeling that, rather than being the main attraction, Mitchell and Webb are actually guests in their own show.

For all the flaws in direction and presentation, the best sketches remain mightly impressive, especially those that deal with the petty, trivial reality behind familiar scenes – such as the henchman asking the Bond baddie to clarify his ambiguous threats to ‘deal with’ an enemy or the SS officer slowly realising that he might be the baddie in the whole ‘narrative arc’ of the war – an imaginatively clever script that remains a modern classic, no matter if you’ve heard them do it before.

Mitchell’s intolerant waiter and vicar are also highlights, as is his parody of the excited Sky Sports hyperbole heralding every mundane football clash as a apocalyptic battle, or his uptight uncle who can’t relate to his baby niece. In Webb’s canon, Numberwang is still a small delight even though it loses a lot by being done too long and too cheaply, and his take on The Weakest Link with Anne Robinson’s teasing sneer replaced by unadulterated disdain is nicely done.

Sketch shows are almost obligated to have misses as well as hits. Mitchell and Webb strike a pretty good average, but even they’re not immune to damp squibs such as a tired spoof of a TV property makeover show or the psychopathic man seeking various murderous tools in High Street stores.

But it’s the good skits you’ll remember, making this a tour you’re likely to enjoy more in retrospect than in the auditorium. Shared experience and the thrill of live performance usually mean comedy is better experienced in a theatre or club than at home, but with Mitchell and Webb, it might be the one time a DVD would be your best choice.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Cambridge, October 25, 2006

Review date: 25 Oct 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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