The queen is dead

COMEDY

FIRST off the blocks in the annual from-Edinburgh-to-London transfer sprint is Julian Clary. The Playhouse is an exuberantly over- the- top West End venue, awash with cherubs and chandeliers, but Clary is dressing down for the occasion: he no longer looks like he has been jumped by a bondage fiend while shopping in Liberty's costume- jewellery department. An explanation for this metamorphosis is not long in coming. Clary was away touring in Australia ("You have to go somewhere") when he saw himself in costume in a full-length mirror. "I just thought 'you sad, tired old queen'."

This downbeat, almost maudlin mood persists throughout the performance, exacerbated by the absence of the cheery retinue of assistants and accompanists with which Clary is wont to surround himself - he says they've been "released back into the wild". After a not wholly felicitous brush with the crowded stage of the grown-up theatre in Genet's Splendid's in June ("I was dreadful, apparently") Clary might be expected to relish sole command of the spotlight, but he doesn't really seem to. His attempts to harry the theatre staff - getting them to bring drinks out for the front row, telling them they have "horrible" names - seem half-hearted, born more of isolation than comedic malevolence.

Audience members queue up to supply him with the sort of titbits on which he would feast on a better night, but he can't be bothered to make a meal of them. A very tipsy, very camp man, plucked from the crowd to operate, maladroitly, Clary's slide show (young Julian, teenage Julian, Fanny the Wonderdog in her dotage, etc) comes over all coy when asked what he does for a living, and turns out to be a priest. Clary seems too preoccupied to make the most of even this heaven-sent opportunity.

You don't need to be Columbo to tell what is preying on Clary's mind. He does not really seem to be joking when he says: "I think there are enough gay comics now. I thought of it first. Get off my patch." And if anyone in the audience has failed to notice that the state of his career is giving him cause for concern, the fact that Clary shows a slide of Jim Davidson - who pipped him at the post to become the new Generation Game overlord (a job which any clairvoyant would tell you Clary was born for) - should point them in the right direction.

It is a particularly savage irony that what Clary ruefully terms his "unfortunate and uncalled for" remarks about a certain ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer on live television a couple of years back seem to have lost him a glittering career in mainstream showbiz. Clary's unprovoked and wholly unfounded verbal assault on the moral rectitude of Norman Lamont was an inspired piece of mischief, the stuff of comedy legend. But it also gave Garry Bushell and others in the media - so insecure about their own sexuality they feel the need to fixate on other people's - a licence to turn on him.

A perverse logic is at work in the fact that it was Clary's funniest moment that cost him so dearly. There is considerable historical evidence - the careers of Larry Grayson, John Inman and Duncan "Chase Me" Norvelle spring to mind - that the broader British public finds it easiest to accept gay comedy personae that aren't actually very funny. By breaking this tacit contract, Julian Clary might not have done himself any favours, but he has earned the respect of all decent people.

Julian Clary: Playhouse, WC2 (0171 839 4401), Mon, Wed-Sat.

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