THEATRE / Fine old mess: Paul Taylor reviews Paul Merton at the London Palladium

The revolve at the London Palladium - ah, what misty black-and-white memories light the corners of your mind (those eponymous letters swirling by with Brucie, pre- wig, stationed behind one of them, and look] Pearl Carr & Teddy Johnson . . .)

From now on, though, whenever I think of rotations in the Palladium, it won't be this Proustian posse that springs to mind, but the memory of Paul Merton doing his casually hilarious ice-skating spoof. Emerging from behind the tinsel curtains up stage, his skater 'performs' semi-circuits of increasingly surreal suit-yourself perfunctoriness before disappearing behind the glitter again. Deeply absorbed in the Times on one round, he next materialises ensconced in a dinky mobile living-room, still reading the Times and, when he can remember, giving apathetic little dance kicks. Tonya Harding, eat your heart out.

They say that variety is dead, but TV's Mr Misery and his two talented stooges, Lee Simpson and Richard Vranch, seem intent on knocking some affectionate nails in its coffin. Mortality is certainly on the menu in a number of the sketches - the one, for example, where Europe's 'Premier poodle act' tries to do its turn minus the poodles, who have snuffed it in a road accident. Death also crops up in those musings that rely on the sort of gloomy bastard's lateral logic at which he excels: 'Did you know that more people die in hospitals than in fast-food outlets? I know where I'm going when I have a heart attack - Spud-U-Like]'

Not that the show is without traces of resurrection - particularly in the used gag department. Often accused of excessive recycling, Merton manages to get away with it yet again. He introduces us to 'the funniest man in Moscow', played by Simpson, whose torrents of Slavic patter Merton proceeds to translate for us. To the comedian's growing disgruntlement, though, the Russian rib-tickler seems to have an act based on Merton's own golden oldies, including the one about the bombs that have your name written on them, the punchline here being cheekily switched to 'That scared the neighbours - Mr & Mrs V2 Rocket'. Brilliantly dubbed 'the Alien from the Planet Stroppy' by Ian Hislop, Merton bounces, for my taste, too many jokes off his own media image and his ponderings can run to the formulaic. For example, a joke which involves the paradox of a gloomy person grumping about people whose lack of joie de vivre is quite justified crops up twice: both when he plays a hangman and when he launches into a fantasy about having Salman Rushdie to stay. Once would have been quite enough.

No one, though, can veer off on a more interestingly angled tangent than Merton, or keep a running gag going with more stubborn inspiration. On the opening night, he had to endure some witless heckling from a group of rich young oiks in the front row. By the start of the second half, he'd had enough and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they might consider leaving with a refund. To loud applause for Merton, two of them took him up on this, thus ending the only hiccup in an evening that was otherwise endearingly shambolic only when it meant to be.

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