Barrymore: this is your life

Light entertainment without schmaltz - Barrymore has enough charisma to sidestep the cringe factor. But this week, says Mark Wareham, his offstage unhappiness reared its head onstage
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The only queens in evidence at Michael Barrymore's new show on Monday night were the Elizabeth II lookalikes. If you'd asked any of the Gladyses or Beryls shuffling out of the Hammersmith Apollo, whether they reckoned Barrymore was gay, they'd have told you, "Ooh yes dear, I thought he was ever so jolly."

Were Barrymore devotees in denial? Do they only read the FT? Or was it simply that his sexual orientation didn't matter a fig? Because that's not what the tabloids had been telling us. We'd heard that his apparent ratings dive and his uncloseting were inextricably linked, that gay equals unpopular, that he was on his way out, goodbye and goodnight, and shut that door.

Yet any Sun or Mirror man skulking in the sell-out audience might have found himself in denial at the sight of thousands of adoring fans on their feet at the end of Barrymore's set, the flowers being pressed into his arms, the lovingly scribbled messages being handed in, the kids being thrust up on stage for a blessing and enough grannies' Wet-ones to see him through to Christmas 2001.

The hero worship may not mean much in terms of his ratings battle, but it certainly proved that Barrymore's comeback (for that in effect is what he is having to undergo) and long-term future will be judged on his choice of material, not his partner. When he hauls Paul out of the front row in a This Is Your Life spoof, wraps his legs around him and semi-mounts the guy, nary a guffaw, not a titter of irony issues from the audience.

So what of the material? On Monday there were moments of surreal inspiration - his John Paul II, wearing white swimming cap and sprouting periscopic swan's neck and head while gabbling cod latin, was pure Vic Reeves. And some of his asides walk all over the new breed of stand-up and the clever- clever put-down. When some old crone momentarily distracts him with a dry cough, he's in there, quick as a flash, with "Not long now love". And if you must do dancing, then at least do it Barrymore style, with flippers on.

Yet it's irrelevant to judge Barrymore in purely comic terms. He is no more what we have come to mean by the word "comic" than Jack Dee is a light entertainer, and anyone who squirmed their way through Jack Dee's Saturday Night will have seen just how hard variety is to pull off. When Paul Merton, one of our finest comics, took a stab at live variety a few years back, the ensuing post-modern melange resulted in a veritable cringefest.

Because you can't fake variety. You need to be 100 per cent irony-free, impervious to sentiment, to bat straight through the middle of the corny delivery, sing sparkly-eyed through the hoary big band number, and then, given all that (and this is what separates Barrymore from the Brucies, the Deses and the Davros), you need sufficient charisma and magnetism to bypass the cringe factor. In short, you need to be able to get away with it big time.

To be Britain's top top-flight light entertainer - and Barrymore still is that, no question, just look at the opposition (and weep) - you have to be capable of saying the line, "I'm going on tour with the Everlys ... there's Don Everly, Phil Everly and Mewhodrinks Everly", without flinching so much as a nerve end. But more than that, you have to be able to banter spontaneously and mercilessly with audience and band, lark about, camp it up, and yet, and here's the tricky bit, when it comes to the song with a tear in the eye, the I-love-you sincerity, you have to be able to pull that off without even beginning to hint at schmaltz. And only Barrymore can do that. And that's why the nation loves him (or at least, perhaps the most a light entertainer can hope for, doesn't out and out loathe him).

On stage at the Apollo, there was a definite impression that Barrymore was feeling his way back. When he was up, he was off and running, thrusting a groin here, impersonating a popcorn-guzzling battle-axe there. When an old dear executed a military-style crouched waddle all the way down the centre aisle in order to snap his picture, he leapt from the stage and chased her, beads clanking against her ample bosom, all the way back to her seat.

But there were repeated occasions when bitterness reared its head, when the fishing and cooking family man (see theatre programme notes) gave way to the tabloid man. Many's the performer who uses the stage to take a swipe at the critics, but in Barrymore's case you're left feeling he'd need to block-book the Palladium for 365 nights on end to even begin to exact a modicum of revenge against the papers. "Where are the journalists?" he enquired. "Shock horror, Barrymore does lewd suggestion," as he stuck up his third finger with some force. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," followed by a defiant wave of applause from the ranks below. And again, in an Essex Man-plays-Shakespeare skit, he enquires of the Lord of Romford, who has just stabbed him in the heart, "You're not from the Sun or Mirror are you?"

Later, he couldn't resist bringing up the previous night's Bafta appearance when he'd resoundingly humiliated a Lloyds Bank exec at the awards ceremony. And as for the Baftas themselves? "There's a programme nobody knows about," he moaned, "let's give that an award." What could he mean? Cracker? Rory Bremner - Who Else? Men Behaving Badly?

And so inevitably our final impression, amid the adulation and the flowers, was not of Barrymore the performer but of Barrymore the man. As the zimmers (honest) and the tots picked their way out of the theatre, Barrymore's final emotive words were still ringing in our ears, recalling the recent reunion with wife-cum-manager Cheryl that had prompted cynics to launch Jacko-Lisa Marie marriage-stunt accusations.

"Cheryl and I would like to thank you for your unbelievable support in these troubled times," he told us in deep sincerity mode. And then, somewhat forlornly, "If I can get my act together offstage as much as I have onstage, that'll be enough." You could almost sense his regret at the show's finish, as it was back to life for Barrymore, the tortured artist, the living showbiz cliche.

'Barrymore's Back' continues at the Labatt's Apollo, London W6 to Saturday. 8pm. Booking: 0171-416 6080