COMEDY Billy Connolly Labatts Apollo, Hammersmith

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The Independent Culture
Just in case a punter had inadvertently entered the Labatts Apollo on Monday still expecting to see the recently departed Riverdance, the stage backdrop was plastered with the sort of slogans not readily associated with the wholesome Irish dance troupe: "grey pubic hair", "sheep-shagging", "incontinence pants", and "itchy bum". There was no mistaking it; you could only be here for Billy Connolly.

Connolly has been on the wrong end of some flak lately; his most recent encounter of a violent kind with a journalist last weekend resulted in a photographer being propelled out of a Glasgow bar as fast as a baddie from a saloon in a Clint Eastwood movie. Also, his television series Billy Connolly's World Tour of Australia received some decidedly sniffy reviews late last year for its perceived self-indulgence.

There could be no such quibbles about his live performances, however; in his newly re-grown beard, he looked and acted like some medieval potentate returning after a crusading jaunt to an adoring public to reclaim his rightful kingdom.

He has certainly been away from the British live arena for some years - and admitted to early nerves - but as he announced soon after coming on: "As long as priests are still shagging children, there'll always be material."

Connolly sticks to tried and tested methods. Without telling conventional gags, he spends two and a half hours, in his words, "rambling". He makes a virtue out of going off on tangents from his tangents; he returned five separate times over 45 minutes to try to complete his account of the weekend's fracas with the photographer. A surreal gag imagining John Major demanding sexual favours in the manner Bill Clinton is alleged to have done - "he'd have to take his shirt out of his underpants" - immediately prompted a routine about underwear hanging out to dry: "I'm addicted to washing-lines." Anyone tracing the show's course with a pencil would soon end up with an illegible blur of lines.

Though some of his ranting got tiresome - the Daily Telegraph critic would not have enjoyed the torrent of abuse directed at him - Connolly can still very much cut it live. I lapsed into a laughter-induced coughing fit as he re-enacted the Olympic 50km walk: "Who watches them and says, 'I want to do that'? You'll never have a champion from Glasgow. Where would he practise? He'd have a thousand children behind him going like that [doing an exaggeratedly poncey walk]." Connolly made jokes about his advancing years - he has long seen the back of 50 - "the ravenous lust for sex turns into an overwhelming desire for sleep". But age has not withered his blistering energy on stage.

If anything, it has intensified it. "I'm becoming so juvenile," he confessed. "Every year, I get more and more regressive. Show us your underpants."

Billy Connolly continues at the Labatts Apollo, Hammersmith, London W6 (0990 405040) to 8 Feb

James Rampton