Frank Woodley on the bottom, Simon Yates on the top. Photo: James Penlidis

Inside job … Simon Yates, top, and Frank Woodley. Photo: James Penlidis

There are great novels about prison life. There are great movies about prison life. Comedies? Not so much, and for obvious reasons. But the essential grimness of incarceration is no deterrent to comedian Frank Woodley, whose new show, Inside, premieres at the Sydney Festival in the Famous Spiegeltent. ''The original idea was to make a naturalistic comedy about a couple of bumbling criminals but it's evolved into something far more theatrical and poetic,'' Woodley explains. ''Now it's a clown comedy set in hell.''

Inside is a two-hander, created by Woodley and physical comedian and acrobat Simon Yates. The pair have been friends for more than 20 years and are often mistaken for brothers, Woodley says. ''We both kind of look alike and we're both sweet, sweet guys. So we thought it would be a fun contrast to try and play hard guys with shaved heads and handlebar moustaches, in prison.''

In the show, two brothers - Viktor and Vissilli - are trapped in an absurd, nightmarish prison where experiments are performed on them. The audience doesn't know if they've committed a crime or if they are victims of a totalitarian regime, Woodley says. ''We deliberately leave that unclear,'' he says. ''But they are both in it together. We feel like we've discovered this fantastic new genre where you have a very bleak context but all the comedy and all the moments in the relationship that arise from it are actually very sweet.''

Woodley - for 20 years one-half of the comedy duo Lano and Woodley - is a renowned physical comedian, though he claims his skills are very modest compared with Yates's, who honed his talents in Circus Oz and the world-touring ensemble Acrobat..

''Most of my physical capability comes about through not having any self-respect or dignity,'' Woodley says. ''I can fall off a chair in a reasonably amusing way. But Simon can walk on his lips. OK, he can't actually walk on his lips but he can do a triple back somersault off a teeterboard and he has a few tricks up his sleeve that no one else in the world can do.''

Working together, Woodley and Yates also perform routines that many people probably could do, but might choose not to. ''We do a whole routine about waking up in the morning. I scratch his head and rub his eyes and he picks my fingernails,'' Woodley says. ''It's like our bodies become integrated into one character. It's a fun clown routine.''

Woodley describes Inside as ''gentle'' but it's not for kids, he warns. ''It's doesn't have explicit sexual elements or any extreme violence but it does have some pretty coarse language and some pretty out-there themes. There's something about it that seems a bit weird and inappropriate for under 13s.''

Do Viktor and Vissilli escape? Woodley isn't saying, but hopes his audience will leave the Spiegeltent with a ''tingly, positive feeling''.

''We want them to have a sense that they've had a really good belly laugh,'' he says. ''But they've also had all their other emotions jangled and stimulated.''

Inside plays at the Sydney Festival, the Famous Spiegeltent, Hyde Park north, from January 9-27. Tickets $60-$65. Bookings 1300 668 812.