Eddie Izzard: man or turtle?

COMEDY

FROM Terry Christian and Mariella Frostrup at the top, to Elvis Presley and Lord Lucan at the bottom, the opening night A-list are out in force for Eddie Izzard at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Not to be outdone for razzmatazz, the star of the show swaps his usual low-key arrival for what he precisely terms a "coming-out-of-a-book entrance". The covers of a mighty fibreglass tome pull apart to reveal a flight of white steps. Atop them sits a blue armchair, in which reclines the resplendent figure of Eddie, the principal boy, a vision in PVC and distressed suede.

Izzard glistens like a newly hatched turtle. The book business is a bit of a worry though. The programme introduces us to the great works of literature (Chekhov, Lewis Carroll, Spike Milligan, etc) from which pages will be projected onto the open volume behind him. Happily, Eddie opts not to discuss why this is happening. Happier still, fears that amid the whirlwind of successive film and stage roles Eddie Izzard might have forgotten to write any new stuff - and that the sense of this remarkable performer being a shared secret might be fatally diminished by his having "drunk from the big TV-cup thing" - prove to be groundless.

The evening's first comic coup wells up from the deep orange of Izzard's jacket. "If Buddhists and extreme Protestants live in the same area," he muses, "one of them must wear an away strip." This is philosophy in whimsy's clothing, which is odd because the search for a subtext in this man's material is usually fruitless. In fact his best routines often deal with subject matter - the queue at the late-night garage, the relative merits of oranges and satsumas - that would be crushingly mundane in the hands of most comedians.

Eddie Izzard's greatest gift is the ability to weave dazzlingly imaginative film scripts out of the dull cloth of quotidian normality. Some of the tricks of his trade - the chasing himself around the stage, the distracted manner as disguise for ruthless planning and extreme mental agility - are growing familiar. And there is the odd point - especially when he starts to get on non-linguists' wicks by doing stuff in French - at which he threatens to drift on to worn-out territory. But, when, as for most of tonight, he's got a new thing going - the Corinthians bemoaning their choice of St Paul as a pen-pal, or a savage assault on the integrity of blacksmiths - he is still in a class of his own.

If all the other comedians who have appropriated aspects of Eddie Izzard's style for their own had to pay him a levy, he would never need to work again. Doubtless that would not make him happy though, as his physiognomy seems to require new challenges as regular mortals demand tea and toast. This is a much bigger theatre than those in which his previous West End runs extended to record-breaking lengths, and before seeing this show I thought he was giving a hostage to fortune by booking it for nine weeks from the off. But people love to watch Eddie Izzard pushing his luck, which is why when a button falls off his jacket early in the second half, he feels not just able but obliged to sew it laboriously back on in front of 1,400 people.

At the Perrier Pick of the Fringe double bill at Her Majesty's in the Haymarket, Tim Vine proves to be not, as first impressions suggest, an annoying children's party act, but an accomplished family entertainer in the Russ Abbot mould. Arthur Smith's Hamlet is a thoughtful and at times quite moving 42 minutes, with a special treat for Fist of Fun fans as Sally Phillips' Ophelia wreaks a dreadful revenge on former beau Richard Herring.

Eddie Izzard: Shaftesbury Theatre, WC2, 0171 379 5399, nightly except Mondays to 16 Dec. 'Arthur Smith's Hamlet': Duke of York's, WC2, 0171 836 5122, Fri & Sat, then 27 Oct-11 Nov.

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