Cabaret: Liliane Montevecchi Jermyn Street Theatre, London

In 1982, Liliane Montevecchi pitched up in Manhattan and called her New York agent - "he was not dead yet" - after a 30-year silence. He suggested she audition for Tommy Tune's new musical, Nine. "I've never been to an audition in my life," she replied. "I'm a star."

As Stephen Sondheim wrote in Gypsy, "You either got it or ya' ain't and, boys, I got it." Not only that, Montevecchi is eager to flaunt it. Discovered in a pencil spotlight leaning seductively against a doorpost, she's clad in figure-hugging velvet that reaches little further than her wasp waist. Her legs, as Larry Gelbart put it in City of Angels, "Go all the way down to the floor." If she were 40, she'd be looking good. At 65, she's spectacular.

A prima ballerina for Roland Petit at 18, she went to MGM on a seven- year contract. Fritz Lang directed her first film and she also appeared with Brando, Astaire and Elvis Presley. Returning to Paris, she led the Folies Bergere for six years and in the late 1980s delivered a rip-roaring rendition of "Ah, Paree" in the celebrated concert version of Sondheim's Follies.

She retains the kind of guttural French accent last heard in Gigi. Full, long dramatic vowels, deliciously spat consonants and gurgling rolled Rs which shimmy into a gorgeously filthy laugh that punctuates her programme of songs by the likes of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Cole Porter. The danger of performing your own retrospective is that the whole affair can turn over-serious, but just when you think you are in for a bout of professional warmth peppered with smooth, slick renditions of career highlights, she bats her mascara'd eyelashes and cracks jokes.

The simplicity of her take on the French favourites "Autumn Leaves" and "Ne Me Quitte Pas" is a great relief after endless hand-wringing, curdling renditions by all too many nightclub acts, and she even gets away with a swift tribute to heroines including Josephine Baker, Mistinguett ("Mon Homme") and Piaf ("La Vie en Rose"). She brings a sophisticated air of bafflement to Sondheim's story of sexual peccadilloes in "I Never Do Anything Twice" and goes full throttle with Jerry Herman's "I Don't Want to Know" from Dear World.

The problem with the evening is the space. Intimate theatre is one thing but there isn't even enough room for a grand piano, although her pianist and musical director Barrie Bignold does his considerable best at an upright with or without the gazelle-like Montevecchi perched upon it. She clearly adores being almost literally in people's laps, but when such a petite woman is so much larger than life, you wish she had the room really to let rip.

To 23 June (0171-287 2875)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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