COMEDY / Still giving till it hurts

IF YOU had only come across Sandra Bernhard in her chat-show appearances and newspaper interviews of the past few weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that she was one of the world's least amusing people. Sullen, snappy and uncommunicative, the lofty LA super-vixen seemed to have lost - or rapidly be losing - the balance of cool and warmth that is the key to her appeal.

On stage for the third successive night at the Royal Festival Hall - in front of an adoring crowd, and with The Strap-Ons, her band of dopey-looking US sessioneers, behind her for support - Bernhard is an entirely different proposition. Patti Smith playing it for laughs, Mick Jagger with a personality; this (her own words) ``intense, provocative Jewess'' has not forgotten how to give till it hurts. ``I know I'm taking your time,'' she informs us, ``but it's mine to take.''

Sandra Bernhard promises a ``clean-cut message: me, me, me'', and tottering elegantly back and forth in a circulation-endangering felt hoop-dress, postage-stamp hot-pants or regal swan's feathers, she seems to deliver. But it's never quite as simple as that. The joy of Sandra is you never quite know where narcissism ends and satire begins (or vice versa for that matter). Her journey to stardom, from manicurist to mannequin, has always been informed by her acute sense of herself as at once an insider and an outsider - you might call it glambivalence.

This allows her to be both viciously tough - on Glenn Close's performance in Sunset Boulevard, ``She may not be able to sing it, but she looks it'' - and startlingly tender. Her interpretation of Syl-vester's gay-disco anthem ``Mighty Real'' as both a love song to San Francisco and a prayer for all those living in the shadow of Aids is profoundly moving. As a singer, Bernhard has the rare ability to make explicit what was previously implicit - even in songs, like the Stones' ``Sympathy for the Devil'' or Prince's ``Little Red Corvette'', so perfect no one else would dare touch them - without eroding mystique. She does the same thing as a cultural critic.

In Dallas Doll, a spiky Australian comedy out next year, Bernhard has also found her most fulfilling film role since her tour de force in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy. She plays a predatory golf pro and new-age gobbledy-guru who debauches an entire family. She doesn't mention the film in her show. Apparently, she hates it.

The young Northern Irish comedian Jimeoin (pronounced

Jimowen, but don't blame him for trying to be cute: it's the name his mother gave him) also had to go Down Under to get a break. Like Dave Allen before him, Jimeoin was a big star in the Antipodes before anyone had heard of him in the old country. This week he was at the Shepherds Bush Empire, a venue, if anything, even better suited to comedy than to music, as the slight upward slope of the floor matter less when there are chairs on it. Judging by the reception he got, the Northern Hemisphere is his for the taking.

A skilful graduate of the ``Have you ever noticed?'' school of comedy, Jimeoin offers pinpoint domestic whimsy - sample observation ``Making the tea takes the fun out of drinking it'' - which makes up in precision what it lacks in socio-political impact. He has a sometimes almost uncanny ability to break down popular thought-processes into a succession of freeze-frames: ``Do you ever

stagger when you're drunk, and then pretend that you're dancing and then think to yourself, 'I'm in a chip shop'?''

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