Will Watts sees Rob Brydon of "Marion and Geoff" give a talk on "Making Divorce Work"

Marion and Geoff is that pocket-sized BBC 2 series where Rob Brydon, in the character of a cruelly cuckolded minicab driver Keith Barrett, talks to camera about his failed marriage. Mr Brydon has reworked this character into a starting-soon West End Show (as Simon-the-MC explained, and he should know), and last Friday he visited a packed Headliners club, presumably to give his material an extra pre-theatre airing.

Now Marion and Geoff is as good as an example as you could wish for of a programme that is funny in theory but dangerously poignant in practice. There's real loneliness when Keith ratchets on the handbrake and turns to the lens to explain his latest self-inflicted disaster. It's sufficiently excruciating that I would watch it from behind the sofa with my fingers in my ears, were it not that I spend too much time doing this already to cope with the differently tormenting The Office. Could a live act, with no retreat possible, be bearable?

In the event - absolutely! Brilliant! Hilarious! The Keith Barrett character came on with a clumsily-handled clipboard and explained that he wasn't performing an act but giving a talk; a talk called 'Making Divorce Work'. There were many good touches. Example: he inverted the conventions of audience control. When a woman's mobile phone went off, he shushed everybody else and, voice filled with solicitous concern, encouraged the guilty party to proceed: 'No, go on, take it. You wouldn't want to miss it. It might be an important call.'

headliners chiswickThe effect of the character was much lighter than on the telly. The pathos evaporated in gales of audience laughter. 'Of course, now that I don't live at home, I've got to know the M4 like the back of my hand. It's 160 miles down the M4 to see the kids.' Pause. 'That's a 320 mile round trip.' Pause. 'Or 640 miles if you remember something you've left behind just as you get back.' Why's that funny? Perhaps it isn't without Mr Brydon's delivery.

A big lump on Rob Brydon, but I have less to say about the other acts. In two cases, because I don't feel qualified to comment on their specialities. (Reader's voice: Just what were you qualifications again?) For example Paul Zerdin is a ventriloquist. He seems a very good one: in that 1) his throat muscles - never mind the lips - hardly move, 2) one is absolutely convinced that one is listening to a dialogue, 3) his dummy is a large droll spongy creature built like a sort of Muppet, and not one of those sinister grinning creatures that were always turning up on Roald Dahl's Tales of the Rather As We Predicted, discovered locked in suitcases with human blood on their hands and 4) his stuff was Consumer Association tested ISO 9001 RAC recommended funny. What more can one ask of a vent?

Mark Hurst looks like Sid James with the wrinkles half ironed away but when he opens his mouth, instead of a dirty chuckle, out comes the voice of a northern club circuit pro. Mr Hurst's jokes consistently got laughs, but it seemed to me that the laughs came from that section of the audience that doesn't really understand comedy but can recognise a pause in the comic's spiel and feels an overwhelming urge to act on this recognition by filling the gap. Delivery competent, material dreary.

Finally Paul Zenon, the second 'PZ' of the evening, is a conjurer who builds his act on the firm foundation of not being David Copperfield. Hearts sank throughout the audience when he produced a pair of those metal rings that magicians love to entangle and release, but then lifted again when he 'broke' one pulling them apart. He came partially unstuck, through no fault of his own, when a punter whose jacket had been borrowed refused to come up on stage to take part in his Great Wall of China sketch, but a substitute volunteered himself and it all ended happily. Phew.

Environmental note: sadly, I must report that The Man Who Talks To His Girlfriend All Through The Evening has discovered Headliners. Although not as big a pest as his dreaded musical cousin The Man Who Sings All The Lyrics To His Wife, he is an annoyance we could do without, and he should be strongly encouraged to leave Chiswick and return to his natural breeding ground. Which is, of course, Ronnie Scott's.

Will Watts

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November 4 , 2002

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