Comedy: All droop for Julian Clary

When you go to see Julian Clary, you expect to hear a few risque jokes. But there was one ad lib about the fun he could have with three schoolboys which left everyone in the Vaudeville Theatre speechless - including Clary himself. He had phoned the baby-sitter of a woman in the audience, and it was she, over the theatre's PA, who made the evening's most scandalous joke. Nor was she the only member of what he called "the general public" who out-Julianed Julian. Safely seated towards the back of the stalls, I'd hoped to witness some barbaric mutilations of paying customers' egos. But it was the audience who improvised, while Clary's banter put the limp into limp-wristed. A spectator would tell him his or her name or job, and he would raise an eyebrow and say: "I'm sure I could make something of that." By the end of the evening, I wasn't so sure that he could.

In the opinion of some critics, this West End run sees Clary stepping into the sequinned slingbacks of Edna Everage. But on the night I went along, he was nothing like the Dame. Barbs about the punters' "cheap clothing" draw blood only if you're wearing something shockingly eccentric or overwhelmingly stylish. Clary was in khaki jodhpurs, a white T-shirt and red braces, and there was only so much authority his fashion critiques could muster when he looked as if he should have been presenting a mid- morning television show for the under-10s.

The scenery was just as tacky, offering pantomime gaudiness when Clary's innocent, supercilious manner requires lavish glitz. On either side of him stood an eight-foot tall version of those toy flowers you could buy a few years ago which wriggled around in time to music. These had to jostle for space between a pram, a doll, an acoustic guitar, a telephone table, a stool and a medical screen.

Evidently, Clary had spent a lot of time dreaming up gimmicks for his show - but not much time working out what to do with them. The guitar was picked up for just a single strum (to accompany a highly amusing Lighthouse Family medley, admittedly). The result was a fragmentary show, with too many undeveloped ideas; the scribblings on the back of an envelope, instead of a full script. If he had picked fewer topics, but delved more deeply into each one, it would have been a much more satisfying experience for everyone.

The stand-up's standby of bedroom inadequacy was seen from a fresh angle, with Clary detailing his experiments in heterosexuality. He'd learnt all sorts of novelties - taking your clothes off before you have sex, for instance. "How do you find the time?" he marvelled. But as with all his routines, he flirted with the subject for a minute or so instead of taking it all the way, and soon resorted to saying, "I'm sure I could make something of this," while paging through a sex manual.

All very taboo-breaking from a student comic, but from a 38-year-old veteran, it raised fewer laughs than you'd hear at the average comedy club - or on the average episode of All Rise For Julian Clary. In the current series, he balances cheek and charm with effortless dexterity, slipping into the mantle of Larry Grayson. He's ruder and cruder than he is onstage, too. All we get from the live Clary that we can't already get from the TV Clary is a few excruciating songs and some creaking double entendres. Yes, if you start off by saying your butler is named "Jism", then the appropriate jokes come gushing out - but isn't that cheating?

To be fair, the show was rescued by a glittery, feel-good finale; and to be fairer, Clary mentioned twice that he was on antibiotics, so his fluffed lines and uncharacteristically blunt wit could well be rectified before the end of the run. If they aren't, a notice should be erected outside the theatre: Julian Clary is unwell.

Vaudeville, WC2 (0171 836 9987), until 3 Jan.

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