Coward wrote a show for her, she's played Sondheim and Albee and Tennessee Williams. Woody Allen gave her a cameo in his latest film ... tomorrow she sings in London

Elaine Stritch, the grand old dame of Broadway, asks David Benedict: who are you calling elderly?

Elaine Stritch has just arrived in London to stay at her beloved Savoy Hotel, where she lived for 14 years. Greeting her, the nervous press rep remarks that one of the elderly porters still remembers her. "Elderly..?" she growls, with a look that could halt a stampede, before guffawing with laughter. She's on a roll. Turning to her producer, her unique grouchy voice brimming with comic sweetness and wicked threat, she rasps: "Next time, could you get me a driver who's less than 105 years old?"

The first part of her journey from New York was fine, thank you. Travelling by Concorde reminds her of gracious living, a time when people actually dressed to fly. Then came the car journey. "That driver... Leslie, his name was. Do you know what he said to me? He looked in the mirror and said, `Oh, Miss Stritch... are you still working?' Well! So I say to him, `Will you pull over please, Leslie? I'm afraid, with what I've got to say to you, you shouldn't be driving.' Unbelievable!"

You had to be there. It's all in the tone. Horsing around, the blissful timing beneath that thrilling baritonal growl, it's a performance, and she plays her audience like a harp. Which is why she's here. Tomorrow night she's a guest at the 70th birthday party of her old friend, the equally gifted performer Barbara Cook. It will be a quiet affair: just Cook, Stritch, Maria Friedman, Tommy Korberg, Michel Legrand, conductor/ arranger Wally Harper, the Royal Philharmonic and an audience of 5,000 at the Royal Albert Hall. There are only two words to describe it: be there.

The last time London heard her sing was in 1972, when she starred as the beady-eyed lush, Joanne, in the original cast of Sondheim's Company. She knocked 'em dead mixing pain and disdain in "The Ladies Who Lunch" and no one has been able to erase her reading. She got reviews to die for and stayed, notching up more raves in Small Craft Warnings, Tennessee Williams' play set in a bar- room of broken dreams. Her barnstorming performance moved critic Peter Ansorge to write: "Rarely has the London theatre seen a performance of such intensity, such whiplash drive, such virtuosity, such pure theatrical magic." Not bad for someone who made her debut in the 1948 revue Angel in the Wings introducing the song: "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo..."

Having stood by for Ethel Merman on Call Me Madam (she never went on), she left a showstopping role in Pal Joey to do the Merman part on tour and never looked back. When they needed a climactic 11 o'clock number for the revival of On Your Toes, Richard Rodgers gave her his entire back catalogue to choose from. Noel Coward caught her in the flop musical Goldilocks and wrote Sail Away just for her.

She has made only 12 movies but wants to do more, having just completed Out to Sea with former drama-school classmate Walter Matthau. The ex- convent girl cracks up at the mere mention of her 1956 debut. "It was one terrible film called The Scarlet Hour. Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Some asshole asked me what I thought about my performance in that and I said I thought I looked like I was visiting the set. And I did! I would come in, and there was this deep mystery goin' on with Carol Ohmart and she's sittin' by the pool and she's murdered somebody and I don't even know what the fuck is going on, and my line would be `Hi!'" Her raucous laughter rings round the room. "It was like they were on a break and I was EG Marshall's friend come to say `hello' to everybody. It had absolutely nothing to do with the plot and all I did was change my costumes and gasp, `You're kidding'!"

She was the only good thing in the stodgy, stately 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms and 20 years later she was coolly astringent as Dirk Bogarde's mistress in Providence. Last Friday, at the last minute, she stepped in to do a cameo in her second Woody Allen movie. "It's a very naughty part. He said, `You wanna do this? You wanna talk dirty?' I said, `Lemme see it.' I was scared to death. I didn't know what he was going to send me. I said, `I'll swing naked from the chandelier if it's justified.' Well, on second thoughts, I won't: I'm afraid of heights'."

It turned out to be a tough assignment. "Now, I can learn lines crackerjack. Four pages in one day in addition to costume fittings and everything, fine, but learning and playing it that fast? I got to the set and had Geena Davis and Bebe Neuwirth to work with and champagne to pour and the lines went clean out of my head. Woody said to me, `Elaine, if you make a mistake, just keep going.' But I can't. If I make a mistake, reality goes out the window."

That's what Stritch gives you. High-definition reality. In last year's knockout Broadway revival of Albee's A Delicate Balance, she played the hard-bitten, wisecracking alcoholic sister. Stritch has been dry for over 10 years, but was a major drinker in her time, which lent her performance a shocking emotional depth beneath a brilliant comic surface. She worked four separate laughs on a single line, none of which were cheap gags to please an audience. "Comedy timing has to be instinctive," she pronounces; "if it isn't, you're dead." Her instincts led her to paint a hilarious, heartbreaking portrait of a woman not waving but drowning.

Stritch is prized as someone who can slay and enslave an audience, but she doesn't see it that way. "There's a big difference between playing to an audience and with an audience," she says. Deftly switching the conversation away from herself, she tries to explain Barbara Cook's quality. "She swallows an audience. It isn't a matter of dedication. When she sings, she belongs entirely to them. There isn't ego in it, there's a kind of assurance. You've gotta have the guts to walk out there, but it's not `Hey, get a load of me'. It's `I got this song and you gotta understand what it means because I just love it.' She has humility on stage."

Some of Stritch's former, slightly bruised working partners might balk at that "humility" part - this self-styled feisty broad made her student stage debut as a tiger - but she could be describing herself. That self- assurance, which most obviously manifests itself through humour, is a front. She has always been scared. "Every director worth his salt knows that," she says quietly. She started acting to get out of herself. That also explains the drinking. "Drinking was about giving me the guts to put one foot in front of the other, to get out of this state of fear in the first place. And I'm a crafty sonofabitch. I never overshot the runway." In 50 years, she has missed only one performance.

That was when Coward combined her role with that of the lead in Sail Away during the Philadelphia try-out. "I had Sunday and Monday to learn her part and all her songs. I went on and I was terrific. The next night I couldn't talk. Noel said to me, `You had four Heinekens in the Variety Club last night, Stritchy, that's why you weren't on.' Jesus Christ! If you don't deserve four lousy Heinekens after that..."

She once told Cleo Laine she couldn't get over her vocal range. "You've got 18,000 octaves. I've got about four notes." Laine replied: "But what you do with those four notes." Even on disc you can feel that expressive quality; live, it's something else. Her ever-present terror turns to radiant heat. It's heavily disguised, but her truthful vulnerability is what makes audiences worship her.

Elaine Stritch: 8pm tomorrow, Royal Albert Hall (0171-589 8212)

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape