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THEATRE / Beyond the cringe

SUNDAY night at the Prince of Wales was a ``dress rehearsal'' , as Tony Bennett charmingly put it, for Monday's Royal Variety Performance. Since recording MTV Unplugged in the spring (with fans such as kd lang and Elvis Costello), Bennett has found a new, younger audience. He could hardly find an older one, except at a Royal Variety Performance.

The man Frank Sinatra calls the best singer in the world is 68. The lines on his face are deepening. His eyes slope further down and his lips curl further up. Soon, when he smiles, they will join up, like the M25. His dark suit, blue tie and red pocket handkerchief aren't quite as fashionable as his reputation, hinting, as they do, at an alternative career as manager of a menswear store. When he flexes his knees to the beat, pats the piano or cups both hands round the microphone, you think you're going to cringe (thoughts of Andy Williams, thoughts of Perry Como). And you do.

But when he hits a big vowel it doesn't pour out like treacle. There's a rasp, a croak, a throatiness that cuts across the emotions: this is the voice of an angel awoken after a night on the town. He's still a heavy-hitter. He holds the word ``love'' in ``Devil Moon'' for 15 seconds, growls a big black ``oh yeah'' at the end of ``I Wanna Be Around'', but brings it right down for the intimate pitter-patter of ``Steppin' out with My Baby''.

Bennett shares the stage (literally) with his long-time pianist Ralph Sharon, bass player Douglas Richeson and the irrepressible Clayton Cameron, who does his solo as if he thinks the bailiffs are after his drumkit. After the exit Bennett comes back and sings ``Fly Me to the Moon'' with the microphone turned off. Low-tech is clearly the way to age with style. He gets a standing ovation. (Photograph omitted)