Arts: Not a dry seat in the house

Cabaret: PATTI LUPONE; DONMAR WAREHOUSE, LONDON

PROGRAMMING A season of divas offers more regulated delight than the spasmodic idolatry of the Sunday one-nighter. With Patti LuPone you get one loyal, limelight-evading accompanist (Dick Gallagher); two frocks in contrasting cuts of ivory shimmer (one for each half); two flower arrangements (ditto); scripted links that make Barbara Streisand seem like Stephen Hawking ("it's safe to say that every member of this audience has been in love at least once"); and a choreographed light show (Howard Harrison and Stuart Crane) for emotional enhancement. There's also a stole which seems to come from a genetically modified mink, being the length of a small bus.

The true diva thing requires constant tension between safety and risk. Too risky and you hardly get a show at all, just a medley of propped-up mumbling punctuated by dashes to the wings for a glass of water or a little methadone. Too much safety, however, and the pleasure also diminishes. LuPone's first risk is to cast aside the repertoire on which her unusually transatlantic fame was built. She may have been New York's first Eva Peron and London's first Norma Desmond, but not a note of Lloyd Webber passes her lips.

LuPone's Long Island sound is formidable even in Broadway's biggest barns - in the Donmar it is a wall wobbler. The crumbs tossed to those wanting old-style show tunes are Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers which prove the least convincing of the night. Stern, hands-on-hip rendition makes her as much of a cock-eyed optimist as Ian Paisley. She wouldn't be seen dead in Kansas in August. And "Hello Young Lovers" becomes a chilling warning. "I've been in love like you" has the distinct subtext: "and it didn't last".

The diva's dilemma: the matters of the heart of which she sings are increasingly peculiar for her audience. With about as many heterosexual men present as at an air stewards' convention, boy-meets-girl conventions seem like the quaint rituals of an exotic subculture.

Fortunately, LuPone can wrest maximum astringency from the most ornate lyric. This bitter, witty Patti is the star of the evening. An evening that begins to heat up with a tart Dillie Keane piece "Shattered Illusions". "Not a Day Goes By" is compressed with the fury of lost love - incandescent with rage, just like "Being Alive", another double-edged "I'm in love, so I'm in agony" number.

A true diva review is not dispassionate. Either it is a damp-panty rave which ovates (like most of those present, exhalation becoming exclamation: "We LOVE you!"). Or a vicious death notice, which predicts visible tears at the same precise moment throughout the run and snipes at lyrical lapses of concentration which culminated in a full-scale dry.

Yet that professional slip provided a rare intimate diva moment in a show that tends to the over-controlled. This is an actress who plays divas. And you get a performance.

Carl Miller

To 21 August, 0171-369 1732

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