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'Did you hear the one about the soap stars working for 25 quid?' asks James Rampton

Don't be a dummy: a ventriloquist and his goose at the Theatre Royal Stratford East's variety revival night. You might also catch the Draylon Underground a cappella group, a local choir singing about poverty and Miriam Karlin doing a sketch with a coffin

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT DAY

VARIETY. The very word conjures up cringe-making images of Jimmy Tarbuck at the London Palladium, in a frilly dinner-shirt that taste forgot, introducing various permutations of his golfing pals with the backing of some scantily-clad dancers.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Variety need not be a moribund form caught in a Seventies timewarp of bad hair and jokes. Variety is alive and well and living at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Every month since 1980, the East London theatre has held a vibrant Variety Night that harks back to the halcyon days of the genre when people as diverse as the Marx Brothers (as performers) and Michael Grade (as a booker) honed their skills.

Dustin Hoffman, no less, has twice been along to a Variety Night. Philip Hedley, artistic director of the Theatre Royal, recalled that "Dustin kept saying to me in the interval, 'You've gotta record this'. He's an addictive theatre-goer and he couldn't believe that an audience like this - that joins in so much - could actually exist."

The Variety Night has launched the careers of Fascinating Aida, the Flying Pickets and Hinge and Brackett, and artists such as Prunella Scales, Susan Tully, Fairport Convention, Lee Evans, Kiki Dee (who played a cleaner during the interval), Barry Cryer, Bob Mills and Brian Conley regularly appear for the flat-rate fee of pounds 25 - which, in any other circumstances, wouldn't tempt them out of bed.

"We often get people from The Bill and EastEnders," said Hedley, "who want to come and let their hair down. They use us as an escape-hatch from the day-job."

Maureen Lipman was once due to play Baroness Thatcher on television, so Hedley asked her: "Why do it first to six million people? Come and try it out at a Variety Night." Which she did.

The cliched view of the East End is of one big happy family where everyone is in and out of the neighbour's all day. It is, so the legend goes, a community steeped in the Blitz Spirit. There's certainly something of that in the Variety Night which has the whiff of an old-fashioned Cockney knees-up.

From the moment just before Christmas when I entered the gaudy portals of the theatre, I was made to feel part of the gang. I was greeted by two burly Irishmen dressed as women - complete with headscarves, coats and handbags. One of them, seeing I was having no luck forcing my way through the throng to the bar, took me by the elbow and cut a swathe to the counter with me trailing embarressedly in his wake.

Any doubts that we were in for a good old East-End night out were banished in the ornate Victorian auditorium when the show opened with communal versions of "Roll Out the Barrel" and "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." The audience - a quarter of whom book religiously for every Variety Night - sang along as though they were at a Max Bygraves concert.

The troupe of actors, a dozen-strong, then took it in turns to line up in twos and tell music-hall gags, many of which started with "I say, I say, I say". For a moment I thought I'd inadvertently stumbled onto the set of The Good Old Days.

Pat and Dave - the aforementioned Irishmen - then proceeded to introduce a bill so varied it might have been sponsored by Heinz: a comedy magician; a ventriloquist with a goose; an a cappella group called the Draylon Underground singing about Hugh Grant; a community chorus, the Newham Needs Choir, with a song about local poverty; Miriam Karlin doing a sketch with a coffin; and a musician called Marvin Hang-glider playing "Hey Jude" in the style of George Formby. After an exhilarating three-and-a-half-hours, the show closed with a high-kicking rendition of "Bye, Bye Blackbird".

Who says all bills these days are just four white-male-thirtysomething stand-ups whingeing about girl trouble and Thunderbirds? As someone commented at the bar in the interval: "It's got something for everyone, innit?"

8 The next Variety Night at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15 (0181 534 0310) is on Sunday 25 Feb

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