First Night: Michael Barrymore; Opera House, Blackpool: Comedian wins over the back of the stalls

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The Independent Online
FOR a moment it looked as if the start of Michael Barrymore's summer season at Blackpool could turn nasty.

The back of the stalls was cram- packed with old mums, scores of them. Had they, he must have wondered, come out in solidarity with his old mum who has been tearfully pursuing him through the press, begging him to answer her letters and get in touch.

It has been a hard life recently for Britain's top variety artist, working-class boy turned millionaire, just back from a three-week stay at a drink and drugs clinic in Maryland - or as the Blackpool programme diplomatically put it: 'He divides his time between projects on both sides of the Atlantic.'

But the old mums broke ranks. Like the rest of us they were here to see what the highest paid, most highly regarded television and seaside entertainer in the biz is actually like and what persuades a television network to give him a pounds 3m contract within minutes of a transatlantic drying out.

The lanky rubber-faced comedian got a standing ovation as he came on and struck a rapport with his Middle England audience so quickly you could barely blink.

Several of them were ritually but good-naturedly humiliated; the Sun's reviewer, Gary Bushell, was spotted and thrown out to huge applause by Barrymore. 'The last time I saw you, you were disguised as a tree,' said the comic with one of several references to his recent troubles.

Singing both opera and rock'n' roll - usually with risque lyrics - doing impressions, light acrobatics and silly walks, all spiced with a mischievousness coarseness - 'have you got any Irish in you, madam? Would you like some?' - he had the audience somehow in his hands.

If the lines weren't always Oscar Wilde - 'some Shakespeare. Alas poor Yorkie. It melted in my hand', - the delivery, timing, facial expressions and astonishing audience rapport showed him to be something out of the ordinary. It was impossible not to laugh, even if one was slightly surprised to be laughing.

At one point he had three children up on stage. 'Have you seen me before?' he asked one. 'Yes, on television.'

'What do I do?'

'I don't know,' she replied. 'Nor do I sometimes,' he mused.

Honest fellow. But whatever it is, it seems to work.

(Photograph omitted)