COMEDY Spike Milligan Almeida, London

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The Independent Culture
Greeted by whooping and hollering as he came on stage at the There's a Lot of Wit About! benefit for Young Minds on Sunday, Spike Milligan tried to silence the audience with a priest-like blessing. It may have been self-mocking, but the gesture seemed appropriate at a concert that had the air of a revivalist gathering. Milligan can spell-bind his followers as unequivocally as any charismatic preacher.

Although doddery in his movements (the paper he held shook noticeably and he took an age to shuffle on stage), the moment he sat down, Milligan was all there. Dressed in a natty red and black patterned silk waistcoat, he commanded attention with the merest half-smile and the baldest of introductions: "10 minutes of some of my poetry".

Even though he performs only rarely nowadays, he's evidently still got it. Just sitting there in silence, drinking in the atmosphere, the man had more presence than a comedy-club-full of younger stand-ups telling frantic "have you ever noticed how?" gags. A devotee in the bar told me he was there to pay tribute to the comedian he was reared on.

An unstoppably fecund writer (he read out some verse he'd jotted down in pencil that afternoon), Milligan rattled through dozens of poems in a short set. The best, which caused the author himself to giggle appealingly, brought out his irrepressibly surreal take on life. A poem about the death of two men concluded: "Apart from that, and a fire in my hat, it's been a very nice day."

Ever eager to crack on, he dismissed the applause between poems as frivolous: "Cut all this clapping," he barked, "it's not important." Nevertheless, he still had time to clench his fist in triumph about Saturday's victory for the British Lions rugby team in South Africa, tell some nutty Irish jokes and banter with the audience. At one point, his question, "Any rugby players in?", was answered by inchoate yelping. Adopting a bewildered frown, Milligan implored: "Somebody please translate for that idiot."

The rest of the bill for the gig, held at the Almeida Theatre in aid of the children's mental health charity, was not short of talent. Julian Barnes recited poetry by Philip Larkin, and John Hegley performed his own verse, while Nick Hornby read from High Fidelity. The Two Johns - Bird and Fortune - delivered a splendidly topical duologue about the Conservative leadership contest. "William Hague was a little inexperienced," admitted Bird's backbench Tory, "but that was Thursday morning. Now it's Sunday evening. He's matured very quickly."

But as Milligan tottered off into the night - "I've got to go to Rye because that's where my bed is" - it was clear who the star of the show was. The applause lingered in the auditorium far longer than he did. The next act, actor Paul Greenwood, stood on stage waiting for it to die down and just whistled "follow that". Nobody could.

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