It is relatively rare that one can experience genuine, unfeigned embarrassment at the London theatre. In this age of sophisticated manipulation, some trick of stagecraft, designed to wrong-foot the audience, is often at work. Even if the discomfort is caused by bad writing or inept acting, the knowledge that the performers are doing a job, that bad gigs go with the territory, tend to keep the blushes at bay.
So moments of real danger and edge, when the necessary and normal division between reality and artifice become perilously blurred, are to be treasured. One such, in which a singer from New Zealand gets down on her knees and sings into the crotch of Michael Barrymore as he writhes around in a pink leotard with a fake erection, will stay with me for a long time.
It was preview night at the show which will mark the return to public life of the man described in the tabloids as "the troubled TV star". Those troubles, as we know, are impressive by any standards: drink and drugs, the end of his marriage, an embittered ex-wife, the whole coming-out-of-the-closet thing - and that was before a man was found dead in his swimming-pool.
At any other time in showbiz history, a family entertainer who was that troubled would have a simple choice. He could earn a living in semi-obscurity, playing the holiday camps in summer and doing out-of-town pantomime in the winter, or he could try to reinvent himself as a straight actor.
In 2003, there is a third way: to put on a one-man show in the West End, appealing over the heads of the sneering critics to the ordinary people who you hope still understand and love you.
Anyone intrigued by the strange therapy-led, celebrity-obsessed times in which we live should take themselves to the Wyndham Theatre, where Barrymore is attempting to resurrect his career. Other West End shows gaze at the price and allure of fame - Jerry Springer - the Opera turns tackiness into satire and music, one of the ex-Golden Girls is waxing nostalgic at the Savoy, even poor David Blaine may be contributing up there in his now rather smelly glass box.
In a weirdly self-conscious way, those in the public eye have been obliged to play their part, proving how ordinary and human they are. Vanessa Feltz going bonkers in the Big Brother house, Tony Blackburn revealing a strange log fetish in I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!, Gail Porter pulling a muscle on Channel 4's idiotic The Games are all involved in the same business. We may be famous, they are saying, but we are essentially like the rest of you. Prick us and we bleed.
Vulnerability plays well on TV; it is more problematic on stage. The very elements of a successful production - slick material, good production values, a jaunty confidence on the part of the performer - are what make it exceptional, not ordinary. A singer on the comeback trail after personal misfortune might get away with some sobbing and emoting into the microphone, but a comedian has a problem. If his show is a rip-roaring success and he is irresistibly hilarious, then he will be seen to lack the humility and sense of contrition appropriate for the occasion.
It seems likely that Barrymore's show will fall into this trap. Although personally I enjoyed the crude sub-Max Miller gags, the critics will almost certainly point to the thinness of material, the uncertainty of delivery, the startling badness of the star's singing voice. What will be more interesting will be to see how audiences react over its seven-month run. The deal on a show like this seems to be that ordinary people will be offered an authentic whiff of a celebrity's fear and insecurity while he, in return, is given the chance to redeem himself morally, rescue his career and remind the world that he is a better, more humane person than he has been portrayed.
At preview night, even surrounded by friends and fans, Barrymore frequently seemed lost on stage, muttering inconsequentially, bantering uneasily with the audience, his eyes as dead as those of Archie Rice in The Entertainer. A family comedian, famous for his sympathetic way with children, he served up jokes of eye-watering vulgarity. Openly gay, he camply maintained the illusion of heterosexuality, flirting with the audience and at one stage snogging a woman in the front row ("Urgh, you kept your mouth open, you dirty bitch," he said as he untangled himself). Yet, at the end of it all, we forgot the cruelty and the dodgy jokes and gave him a standing ovation.
If this show succeeds, it might solve some of the problems currently faced by West End producers. After all, there is no shortage of famous people who could use some theatrical therapy to restore their public standing. Jeffery Archer? John Leslie? Alastair Campbell? Sharing a celebrity's pain could be the stage's next big thing.Reuse content