Leicester Square Theatre, London W1
Opened 4 September, 2008

The venue formerly known as, er, the Venue, beneath a French Catholic chapel just off Leicester Square, re-opens after refurbishment with the first of three stints from the American grande dame Joan Rivers. After its current three-week run, the show (which I saw last month on the Edinburgh Fringe) returns in December for another three weeks and then again in January for a fortnight. Although marketed as a play – set in Rivers’ dressing-room before her stint as a TV red-carpet interviewer at the Oscar ceremony – the hour-and-three-quarter show consists of Rivers repeatedly interrupting the dramatic action to come downstage into spotlight and deliver routines straight to the audience.
If you think a 400-seater venue seems on the paltry side for such a legend, Rivers might agree with you. Part of the show deals with her re-establishing herself after her husband’s suicide and the end of her own TV show, when she gritted her teeth and accepted every engagement going. This determined showbiz survival has now become part of the product that is Joan Rivers. At the Edinburgh performance I attended, I could not help but feel that, just as the play is a pretext for Rivers’ comedy material, so the material itself is to some extent a pretext for our sharing her presence – that this is what our tickets really entitle us to. There was a constant impression that, warm and frequent though the applause was, it was always less than expected. British audiences tend to be a little more reserved on this score, of course, especially as regards applause for simply being whoever one is; even Rivers’ trademark phrase “Can we talk?” went all but unacknowledged by the crowd.
Nevertheless, she gives every appearance of still enjoying the whole business. She and her supporting cast go along merrily with Sean Foley’s parodic direction of the dramatic segments. She declares “There will be no plastic surgery jokes in this theatre!” but lampoons her own appearances on QVC. She is such a pro that, in Edinburgh, she even retained the scripted joke about playing in “this stupid purple cow” (the Udderbelly venue) when she was actually 100 yards away in a Victorian concert hall. Joan Rivers gives good value, if – as I say – the product is Joan Rivers.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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