A play of two halves

Theatre - Wood and Walters prove one of the great comedy partnerships, writes Michael Portillo

''Clap if you like undemanding, middlebrow entertainment." To judge by the applause on the press night for Victoria Wood's new musical, that was exactly what the audience had come for. When Julie Walters finished a wonderfully crude number (graphically featuring the proclivities of Bill Clinton and Ozzy Osbourne), the theatre erupted with cheering, to the extent that the actors found it difficult to restart the show.

Most of the tickets for this run have been snapped up already, presumably by aficionados of Wood's brand of raunchy comedy. Along with Walters, the cast includes Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston from Wood's TV sitcom Dinnerladies, as well as Neil Morrissey, who has seven series of Men Behaving Badly under his belt. Wood fills in for Walters on her nights off. This is an extraordinary cast who love to work together, and their enjoyment drives the performance. Whatever criticisms can be made of the show, it burns with energy and quivers with good humour.

This is a play of two halves. The connection between them is limited, and the first works much better than the second. Wood starts us off with a delicious mismatch between a writer/director and his has-been cast as they meet to rehearse his new musical, with amateur help from the Sutton Coldfield Amateur Operatic Group. They are shocked by the dirty lyrics produced by John (played by Morrissey). He brims with polytechnic anti-bourgeois rage and claims that his plot is a brave, ironic view of post-apocalyptic Britain. It features Clifford (played by Preston), the proprietor of Acorn Antiques, whose business is damaged when the local authority introduces a residents' parking scheme. Like October revolutionaries in St Petersburg, the villagers take up arms, and Clifford wreaks his revenge by massacring the whole corporation in the council chamber.

Walters is Bo Beaumont, the prima-donna former star of a TV soap that lost a ratings war against Celebrity Breast Implants that Went Wrong. John's agitprop drivel is clearly not commercial, and Bo and the lesser soap stars believe they can rescue the booking by inserting numbers from a 1950s musical, complete with references to Suez and Anthony Eden.

The chaotic juxtaposition makes good comedy, and the jokes flow at a hectic pace. Preston plays a lazy hypochondriac of an actor who cannot reach high or low notes and has to rely on other performers to supply them. Walters and Imrie are magnificently over the top as they try to coax their ageing bodies into executing the routines they learned decades ago. None of the cast is exactly young, and so their middle-aged tap routine is hilarious. Bo stars in front of the chorus line in lurid crimson, but her dance moves are cramped by a severe attack of haemorrhoids (or "trouble below the Plimsoll line", as she puts it). By the interval, I was convinced this would be an evening of rare entertainment.

Act II comprises the show that supposedly results when Bo wins the Lottery and can take the production to the West End, freeing the cast from John's direction and Marxist script. The relationship between producer and performers, which forms the backbone of Act I, is ditched. So, too, is the character of Bo. After the interval, Walters's faded star is seen only in her stage role of Mrs Overall, the tiresomely doddery, long-serving housekeeper of Acorn Antiques. Walters is a superb clown. With an indescribably curved back and rubbery legs that shunt her unpredictably around the set, Mrs Overall is a gloriously politically incorrect mockery of old age. Imrie is excellent as one of the tweed-clad sisters who own the shop (Sally Ann Triplett is the other). Her two vices are snobbery and nymphomania, which provides plenty of scope for laughs.

Wood is breathtakingly talented. In her songs, she manages to mimic almost every style from the heritage of musicals. With clever and funny lyrics, her pastiches compare well with the original numbers, and her tunes are catchy. The production is spectacular and excellently choreographed. The slapstick is applied with a trowel, but it is professionally done, and all Wood's cast ham it up with brio.

The problem is that the plot for Act II is weak, even by the standards of undemanding, middlebrow entertainment. It is all very well to lampoon bad theatre, but the parody has to hold our attention better than the thing being mocked. The second half is full of fun, but nevertheless meanders about and is too long. The director, Trevor Nunn, would have done us all a favour had he persuaded Wood to make a few cuts.

Still, you will not often hear so many funny lines in one evening, nor see so much entertainment talent gathered on a West End stage at once. The combination of Wood and Walters is one of the great partnerships in British comedy, and both women are on top form.

Booking on 0870 901 3356 until 19 March