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)

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