REVIEWS : Music Ute Lemper Royal Festival Hall, London

The first shock is at how gaunt she is, and how unlike the album covers and publicity shots. Under the sickly green light of the early numbers, she's a streetcorner tart from an Edward Hopper painting, hugging her arms too tightly around her full-length black coat. Two hours later, after the dizzying encore of Piaf's "The Accordionist", she runs from the stage as if in distress. Amid the cheers and the tumultuous applause we await the retort of a revolver shot from the wings. Instead she re- emerges to take her bows, already reconstituted into the svelte figure familiar from the photos in the programme, while we, the audience, seem prematurely harrowed by age and suffering. Twenty minutes later she's sat in the foyer, smilingly signing CD's to a queue of hundreds, just, as someone said, Marlene Dietrich once autographed high-denomination banknotes for her fans.

It was an incredible show, acted as much as sung and notable less for the songs than for her histrionic treatment of them. Even the virtuoso whistling was superb. The concert stage was shrunk to the dimensions of a small-scale cabaret club by Lemper's intimate delivery and the accompanying quartet's masterly punctuation.

Directed by Bruno Fontaine, who also played piano, the band - of violin, cello and clarinet - looked like a compendium of French stereotypes but played with the steely certitude of a Stravinsky chamber-opera's pit orchestra. Unbending of posture, like a group lesson in Alexander technique, they sat stock-still even as Lemper moved about them, draping a feather boa over the violinist here, playing with the cellist's pony-tail there.

The action began on the park bench, Lemper beached there as if she had been waiting an eternity already before the lights picked her out, whistling a slice of "Mack the Knife" and playing nervously with the buttons of her coat. After 10 minutes or so, she recited a kind of raison d'etre for the programme, name-checking the composers against a drone from the strings before moving through Prevert, Brecht-Weill and far less Sondheim than the promotion, or her album City of Strangers (Decca), had led us to expect. The subtle lighting cues disguised the careful choreography of her movements: suddenly, she was seated on the piano or skulking down- stage in a hunkered sprawl of long, spindly legs. In the full glare of the spotlight the skull beneath her skin seemed dangerously close.

This was the kind of performance that will be remembered for a lifetime.