In their work for the BBC, the League of Gentlemen – the comedy team composed of Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and co-writer Jeremy Dyson – displayed a twisted cinematic streak and a layered writing style that easily raised them a level above their catchphrase-driven peers. Little Britain for example, though it owes them a huge creative debt, has never come close to being as funny or inventive.
However the League’s combined taste for bleakness and drama-school artiness saw them stumble in their attempts to produce a third TV series and a film (this year’s The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse). Both divided fans and critics alike. It was therefore rather inevitable that their new touring live show would probably concentrate on past favourites rather than experimenting with anything fresh; it’s just a shame the resulting production had to end up being quite so conventional.
This is a show of two distinct halves: the first loosely follows the attempt to stage a ‘Communativity’ by theatre troupe Legz Akimbo. The result is a mixture of familiar characters ‘auditioning’ for roles in the production and a random selection of sketches regurgitated from the TV show (not all of them worth revisting it has to be said). It does however feature the inspired sight of the anorak-clad and borderline catatonic Jehovah’s Witness Ann playing Mary (“Tuesdays!”).
The second half sees the citizens of Royston Vasey stage their very own pantomime and employs all the conventions of the genre. So we get Tubbs and Edward up a beanstalk, evil restart officer Pauline as a pen-obssessed Dame, feuding couple Charlie and Stella as the two halves of a pantomime cow and the inevitable return of Papa Lazarou, as, well, Papa Lazarou. It’s the more consistent of the two halves – and contains a valuable illustration of why you should never opt for an aisle seat at show like this – though it does sometimes feel like an exercise in shoehorning in as many characters as possible.
Though the League originated as a stage act, their work is not best suited for venues as cavernous as the Apollo, no matter how much they pad things out with panto pyrotechnics. Gatiss’ pathos-ridden Les McQueen monologue – probably one of the best written sketches in the show – gets a little lost as a result. Reece Shearsmith (the man behind Ollie Plimsolls and Pam Doove) handles things best, adept at physical gibberish and barely contained anger. All three seem to be enjoying themselves however; both Pemberton and Shearsmith could be seen to corpse on more than one occasion, much to the audience’s amusement.
The best bits of the show are those that introduce a slightly edgier element into proceedings: the welcome return of the traumatised cave guide, now working as a theatre safety officer; Legz Akimbo tackling religion through drama (Ollie, dressed as an angel, speaking to a Muslim and a Jew: “you’re both wrong!”) However these moments are vastly outnumbered by all the lowest common denominator humour and numerous bad taste gags.
The jokes come at such a rate that inevitably a good many of them hit home, and the behind the scenes choreography required to ensure that virtually every key character gets a turn on stage must have been incredible – it’s easy to forget that there are only three of them – but their over-reliance on cheap gags and innuendo undermines their efforts. Granted, a major national tour like this is probably not the place for working through new material, but that distinctly disturbing streak that saw them pick up the Perrier and garnered such a devoted fanbase for their radio and TV work is sadly absent and the show suffers as a result. You can’t help feeling they’re capable of better.