I never quite understood what is meant by describing something as being like watching a train wreck in slow motion, until last Tuesday's press night for Michael Barrymore Live! On Stage at Wyndham's Theatre. I was horrified, but just couldn't look away.
Scarcely a couple of minutes after his opening musical number, the almost obligatory mobile phone in the auditorium sent Barrymore rushing off to find it. This was the first indication that the fates might not be with him. Here, as on several other occasions through the show, he tried to make a joke out of complaining that the stage lights meant he couldn't see the audience. But it clearly mattered.
For Barrymore needs people to work with, more than most entertainers. He relies on us not just for feedback, but for material. But only so much. This evening, his very popularity began to backfire. Time and again, audience members who considered him a friend (whether from television or real-life encounters) would banter back at him, suddenly and surprisingly putting him at sea; they had to be discreetly but firmly slapped down. Barrymore needs his audience, but he needs us to be appreciative stooges, not to take any active part in the transaction.
As for the material itself... Rushing around; over-extended silly-voice routines; casually humiliating people (another awkward moment came when a woman forcefully objected to his emptying her handbag on to the stage); musical numbers rewritten as childish smut, and despite Barrymore's well-publicised sexuality as heterosexual smut. Some of it was breathtakingly reactionary, such as a gag less than five minutes in about the size of black men's penises. This isn't, as Barrymore might think, snobbery about such stuff being in the West End; it's incredulity that it's aired anywhere in the twenty-first century.
I recently heard an acquaintance who had known Barrymore in his early days describing his mentality: he seemed, they said, genuinely to believe that whatever he did was all right because it was him, and that affection and forbearance were his due. That seemed all too plausible in the light of Tuesday evening: faced with an audience that alternately gave too much or not at all, he ended things some twenty minutes before the announced two hours were up. Another night, another audience, and things might well be very different; but I have to report what I saw, and what I saw was excruciating.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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