League Of Gentlemen Live Again! | Tour review by Steve Bennett at the Sunderland Empire
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League Of Gentlemen Live Again!

Tour review by Steve Bennett at the Sunderland Empire

With this comeback tour, the League Of Gentlemen cement their status as the Monty Python of the 21st century; another troupe who outgrew their cult, spawning memorable characters that defined a generation of comedy fans who still quote the catchphrases. 

Such devotion, a full 19 years after their TV show first aired, means there’s a sizeable nostalgia market for the work of Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and writer Jeremy Dyson, which they undeniably sate with  their return to the stage.

All the favourites are doing precisely what’s expected of them – but often doing that little bit more, too, which elevates the show above a parade of the familiar. But it is the palpable love for these fondly-loved, if freakishly absurd, creations that gives the performance such an electric energy.

‘Dark’ is the adjective that probably most frequently attaches itself to the League's work given the netherworld of Royston Vasey sprang from the murkier corners of their imaginations. But more crucially they gave most of their monsters a humanity that makes them the most unlikely of heroes.

The audience root for these grotesques, even though, of the most famous, include a cruel, psychotic devious bully of the most disadvantaged in society and a couple of outsider-fearing incestuous serial killers who sadistically torture their victims. And we are willing them to succeed.

Many of their best sketches also run on an edgy dramatic tension that would fray the nerves were it not punctured by the blessed relief of a joke – or, as in one case tonight, Shearsmith corpsing brilliantly. 

Look at the vicious contempt married couple Charlie and Stella Hull spit at each other over a pointed game of Trivial Pursuit, worthy of the most savage kitchen-sink drama; the simmering violence behind Geoff Tipps, here giving another best man speech at the renewal of Mike and Cheryl’s vows, full of cruel insults; or even the fear of misunderstanding the labyrinthine rules of the impenetrable card game Go Johnny Go Go Go Go!

The first half of Live Again is a return to their fringe roots, performing in dinner jackets on a bare stage, with just a few rudimentary nods to costume and stools for the set. We could be in Edinburgh in 1997, when they won the Perrier.

Legz Akimbo get things started, with the bow-tied Gatiss, 51, playing a 14-year-old rapping about stranger danger in a typically ill-judged and patronising theatre in education spoof. They bookend the half, returning later with a piece earnest issues-obsessed group leader Ollie Plimsolls (Shearsmith) has written about the defining topic of the day, the under-appreciation of schools-based performing arts groups, which reaches wonderful peaks of hubristic self-aggrandisement. 

There’s a reprisal of the blind man sketch, the callous dating agent at Attachments, and, of course, the wannabe actor Pam Doove giving her incomprehensibly incoherent, insanely inspired primal grunt of an audition for an orange juice ad.

Gatiss also gives the first of his more poignant characters, such as the melancholic tour guide Mick McNamara, disappearing in a trick of theatre. He brings the same sadness to the heartbroken Toddy, who appears later with his unlikely tale of lost love coinciding with the bingo numbers he calls. 

Part two opens magnificently, with a surprisingly tender scene setting out the League’s theatrical ambitions. They ditched the DJs for a full-on production, with massive sets and demandingly fast costume changes.

We pick up where the comeback TV shows of last Christmas ended, with Tubbs Tattsyrup trapped down Papa Lazarou’s ‘wife mine’, and devoted husband (and brother) Edward on the surface. ‘Edward can you hear me,’ Tubbs sang plaintively and surprisingly melodiously, channelling Yentl. 

For a rousing moment, it looked like we might be getting League Of Gentlemen: The Musical… but sadly no. Maybe for the next comeback?

For now, we often have League Of Gentlemen: The Pantomime, but that’s no bad thing given that Pemberton, especially, is so good at crowd work. As Pauline, back from the dead in a twist that puts some strain on what’s canon, hollers, ‘Okey Dokey’, the audience don’t need asking to respond as one: ‘Pig In A Pokey!’ As innuendo-spouting Herr Lipp he comes into the audience, and while double entendres can be tricky, he pulls them off. Especially when getting his target to show off their oral skills.

Meanwhile, Dr Chinney offers his usual standard of veterinary care; pop music’s never-was Les McQueen reminiscences about the time he was an ‘emergency Womble’ and heartless vicar turned agony aunt Bernice Woodall offers some uncompromising, uncaring, and definitely unPC advice in video clips. All before we return to Tubby stuck down her mine, dreaming of her local shop for local people.

One probable misstep was a dream sequence reviving the toad-loving Dentons, which turns into an orgy of projectile emissions that Little Britain did equally tastelessly, and which came just moments after a similarly gross, yet funnier, scene with Pauline and the besotted Mikey. 

But overall this tour offers an embarrassment of precious things – a joy and a delight for anyone whose heart lies in Royston Vasey, and will never leave.

Review date: 27 Aug 2018
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Sunderland Empire

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