COMEDY / A bon viveur with no penchant for faux pas

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The Independent Culture
WHOEVER DIRECTED the refurbishment of the Theatre Royal Haymarket was no believer in half measures. I suspect they had a gilt complex. The bright blues, creams and golds make an appropriately opulent setting for An Evening with Peter Ustinov. In the photograph which hangs above the stage before the show starts, the distinguished thespian, writer and Unicef ambassador looks slightly rumpled, like the anchorman of a Seventies regional news-magazine programme. When the man himself appears, however, he is dinner-suited - in authentic bon viveur mode.

'What I appreciated so much about your welcome,' he assures his snooty audience after genteel applause, 'was that it was not excessive.' Four years of touring with his one-man show have diminished neither the dryness of Sir Peter's wit nor the depth of his store of anecdotes. In Kuala Lumpur a special work permit classified him as an itinerant prostitute - 'The crowd had paid dollars 200 for dinner, and I was dessert.'

Conceived in Leningrad but born in Swiss Cottage, Ustinov came from a cosmopolitan background of writers and artists, and has moved in elevated company ever since. But his powerful Establishment aura hasn't lost its tinge of renegade humanism - on an old visa application, next to 'skin colour', he wrote 'pink'. An American gentleman in the next row still wishes there was 'a bit more Lenny Bruce' in his routine. This is a bit like going to see a Merchant-Ivory film and bemoaning the lack of a car chase.

It is as a guide to otherwise only imagined worlds that Ustinov excels. Whether that world is one of antique movie celebrity - watching Charles Laughton in a swimming pool ('He was the exact opposite of an iceberg - nine-tenths of him was visible') - or childhood innocence - not wanting to go to Harrods because King Herod lived there - the commentary is equally beguiling. Ustinov is a superb mimic - his accents never slip. A sprightly 73, his performance still exudes mischievious physicality, and he projects his voice so strongly that at especially emphatic moments his diaphragm snaps his stomach to attention.

The atmosphere of unabashed sophistication - we are listening to a man who will comfortably put 'penchant' and 'faux pas' in the same sentence - only slips once. In an untimely reminder of brasher, more modern forms of ostentation, a member of the audience lets their mobile phone ring.

The show goes downhill slightly in its later stages, with an impersonal 'jokes of the world' segment and some unfocused whimsy, but the final impression is of an elegant tale-teller, working with superior material. General Franco asks what the noise is which has roused him from his deathbed coma. 'It is the Spanish people, father,' says one of his dutiful offspring, 'they've come to say goodbye.' A pause. 'Where are they going?'

Where the Ustinovian ideal of laughter transcends national boundaries, Deadpan, 'Britain's first national comedy magazine', is boldly striving to foster a sense of community where none as yet exists. Despite comedy's increased visibility, there is still no formal culture of its appreciation for people to join in with. If there is going to be one - and the tone of the readers' letters in Deadpan's slick second issue suggests the demand is there - it would be nice if it could be a little less eager to reflect the comedy circuit's remorseless laddishness.

Peter Ustinov: Theatre Royal Haymarket, 071-930 8800, to 15 May.