It’s 15 years since Catherine Tate’s TV sketch show introduced the world to her foul-mouthed Nan, gobby schoolgirl Lauren Cooper (“Am I bovvered?”) and a host of memorable grotesques. On the evidence of this live version, it might finally be time to put them to rest.
The “live” part is only half-true. Pre-recorded videos are used to cover up transitions so frequently that at times they seem almost to outnumber the live skits; a few could have come straight from the TV show. One makes a virtue of the theatre setting, starring Tate as a beardy tech guy watching the show from the lighting booth. But they’re not all as successful. Another, in which the unseen Nan is repeatedly phoned up by a giggling Nick Grimshaw (playing himself), should have a content warning for anyone allergic to the Radio 1 DJ.
This show toured the UK in 2016, transferred to Australia and New Zealand, and now arrives belatedly in the West End, feeling a bit well-worn. After two years, Tate is still struggling to remember her lines – but then again, it’s the moments when she fluffs up and is forced to improvise that draw some of the biggest laughs, by creating a much-needed spark of spontaneity.
Similarly, there’s an unmistakable zing whenever she breaks from the script to engage with the audience – as when her Northern Irish mum character drags a spectator on stage to “date” her embarrassed gay son.
Like the catchphrase-heavy sketches in Little Britain, which arrived around the same time, Tate’s TV skits relied on familiarity, playing out variations on the same scenario week-in, week-out, in a way that became funnier with repetition. It’s not a style that has dated well. For me, the return of the outrageously camp Derek Faye (“How very dare you!”) prompted nostalgia, but not laughter. Tate (50) has proved a versatile talent since the TV show ended, impressing everywhere from Doctor Who to the RSC. She has, perhaps, outgrown this material.
The show only really comes to life in the second half, however, when the anarchic Nan finally makes her fourth-wall-breaking appearance. Nan interrupts herself to point out that her grandson (one of three supporting actors) isn’t the “real” one, berating the original actor Mathew Horne for skipping this London run. Sweary catchphrases aside, you’re never entirely sure what she’ll say next.
The wicked old biddy works brilliantly in a live context; you could see her as part of a tradition that stretches from panto all the way back to the Vice character of medieval morality plays. Her big set piece is a genuine hoot, and ends the night on a high.