THE CRITICS : Michael Barrymore: out, back, and brilliant

Call him what you like - a man who has gone a long way on the strength of one John Cleese impersonation, or the greatest popular entertainer of his generation - there's no denying Michael Barrymore knows how to put on a show. Before the Hammersmith Apollo has even got a glimpse of him on the first night of his week-long "Barrymore's Back" residency, the audience has already enjoyed a sharp Scouse club comic ("I was 38 before I had my 21st, that's how poor we were"), a bizarre string quartet playing Jackson Five, Beatles and Abba songs, and charming former Bob Says Opportunity Knocks champion Brenda Cochrane.

Barrymore's high-velocity impact is such that all memories of this excellent supporting line-up are instantly banished by his arrival. Many have tried to bring a touch of authentic showbiz glitz to this notoriously glamour- resistant venue, but no one - not Barry White, not Lemmy from Motorhead, not even the full cast of Riverdance - has succeeded quite so absolutely as Michael does. His singing might make Des O'Connor sound like Jose Carreras, but his showmanship is unimpeachable. He does not just take the stage, he annexes it.

A human dust-devil of unparalleled intensity, Barrymore dispenses put- downs, one-liners and impromptu dance routines with a rapidity that must be the envy of the whole comedy constellation - pre and post-alternative alike. His Riverdance-in-flippers and Pope-with-a-swan-on-his head routines are worthy of Spike Milligan at his best. Because his material lives in variety time rather than real time (why else would the inevitable This is Your Life sketch feature Eamonn Andrews rather than Michael Aspel?), his best gags seem timeless rather than antique.

The true magic and mystery of Barrymore is how - combining the frantic demeanour of a commission-only used-car salesman with the cold and deadly stare of a garter-snake - he somehow manages to project such extraordinary warmth. Never having seen him before except on TV, where his bullish jocularity often seems to have a rather predatory quality to it, I had always assumed the much-vaunted Barrymore warmth to be a mythical quality - like the wit of David Gower or the wisdom of Nick Ross - but in a theatre there's just no arguing with it. The audience, tots and totterers alike, veritably basks in it.

The affection flows both ways, and it needs to. As Barrymore builds up to a transcendentally emotional finale, he repeatedly has to break off to interpret muffled shouts from the back of the auditorium. He looks truly vulnerable at these moments - as if one cruel impulse could be the end of him - but the cryptic grunts of his kind of people invariably translate on repetition into touching messages of support: "Keep your chin up Michael." Garry Bushell may not easily forgive those who force him to face up to the plurality of human sexual orientation, but the great British public have got more sense. From Kenneth Williams to Boy George, the nation has not had a problem with gayness among its variety performers and on this triumphant evidence, Michael Barrymore has nothing to worry about.