Arts: If you can take it, she can dish it out

The minute she walked in the joint, you could she was a woman of distinction. Ed Seckerson spent a little time with Shirley Bassey
LIZA WAS to have opened just across town - same night, bigger venue (coincidence or cosmic rivalry?). But it was Shirley who got to sing "New York, New York". For "ol' blue eyes", she insisted, but the subtext was inescapable ... this town was never going to be big enough for the two of us, honey, honey. And so the band struck up "Goldfinger" and Shirley, the indestructible, who never cancels (that clause was written into the Bassey constitution before Liza was out of diapers) shimmied downstage centre, frock and drop (big drop) earrings in full accord with the subtle aesthetics of this her "Diamond Tour".

"Diamonds are Forever", and so is Shirley. The big notes get you first. Mouth and nostrils flare, glossy lips quiver, and out they come. Huge. For a while you don't hear much else. These are the do-not-adjust-your- sets moments. You can't turn Shirley down - don't even think about it. The words come out in spasms, they zap you like tiny electric charges and then flare incomprehensibly into the next big emission. More words go down in the fall-out. You know them anyway - so why should you need to hear them? "Johnny One Note". Caught that. Caught the note, too, took cover from it. And it grew and grew, a little, then a lot of vibrato carrying it through the audience, out of the auditorium, and across town to where Liza was to have performed.

Notes like that scream defiance, and survival. Most of Shirley's songs are about survival. She's her own fortress - iron-clad, or is that spangle- clad.

Speaking of which, there's the body language, the imperious semaphore, spidery hands constantly searching for a place to call home, or else locked around bare shoulders like they belong to someone else. Shirley strikes so much attitude it's amazing there's any left. "I love you, hate you, love you, hate you" ... yes, the emotional colours are primary colours. Preferably black or white. That's the way her adoring fans like it. She's triumphant or she's trembling on the brink of a Niagara of tears. Vulnerable. Vulnerable? "I (Who Have Nothing)" ... please ("Something" was always a more believable title for a Bassey song). Imagine this dame with her nose pressed forlornly against the window panes of "fancy clubs and restaurants" while her lover turns his attentions to someone else? Imagine this dame taking it lying down...

Well, that's another story. Even so, don't mess with Shirley - unless she invites you to. And she does, often. First she sings a song called "Shirley", teasing you with the lyric "Shirley doesn't feel too gay...". Not from where I'm sitting. But then comes "Big Spender", bumping and grinding its relentless way across the front row like burlesque never went out of fashion. Perhaps it didn't. One mature gentleman is invited to fish around in Shirley's fishnets and then gently chastised for doing so. "If you can take it, I can dish it out", she sings. The words are getting clearer now. So is the act. Its appeal has taken in generations of camp followers. In the words of Stephen Sondheim: "First you're another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone's mother, then you're camp...". And then you're an icon. "I'm Still Here" is the name of that song. As if we hadn't noticed. Shirley's encores start roughly halfway through the time allotted for her entire act. "I'm Still Here" is one. "My Way" is another. "I Am What I Am" is a third.

How many more songs about survival can a glamorous grandmother get through at one sitting?

How much more triumphalism can we take? And all the while the floral tributes are piling up on the piano and the cries of "I love you Shirley!" or better yet "I love you more!" are proliferating through the auditorium. By the time she has re-emerged like Icarus in travesti, winged and feathered gold lame cape billowing all around her, the hardcore of her loyal followers have literally gathered at her feet, crouching at the foot of the stage, gazing up, mouthing every word, shaping every emotion. "This is my Life", she sings, louder and more defiantly than ever, and the irony of it is that most of her audience know the details better than she does. She needs to share it, spread it around, like so many favours. As for that elusive final curtain - it's hard to believe there'll ever be one.

Shirley Bassey plays the Royal Festival Hall until Monday 22 June (0171- 960 4242).