Leicester Square Theatre, London W1
  Opened 26 May, 2009

It’s unusual for a comedy-grounded cabaret show to be revived more than 20 years on, unless perhaps in a spirit of nostalgia. And granted, a number of (shall we say) historical notes are struck in Sandra Bernhard’s revisitation to her acclaimed 1988 show. Her segment about bonding with Stevie Nicks, for example, never meant that much to a British audience anyway, but is now distinctly labelled “heritage”; elsewhere, however, she inserts more contemporary references to Twitter or the brood-mother impulses of Angelina Jolie, and opens the evening with a Christina Aguilera number. Although the skeleton and much of the flesh of the original version remain intact, Bernhard does not seem nostalgic in what she calls this “anniversary salute to my own brilliance”. Deluded, perhaps… wait, that sounds cruel, let me explain:
Bernhard’s mixture of song and sarcasm, autobiography and satire was so potent first time around because, firstly, the celebrity culture she simultaneously adored and mocked was not yet a pervasive fact of life, and secondly, she was not at that stage an integral part of it. Much of her material on fame now seems to be “kidding on the square”: superficially she is lampooning or ironising these values, but underneath she is luxuriating in them. This is apparent not least in her natural showmanship: her overdone version of “Me And Mrs Jones” has some absurd moments of vocal flight, but fundamentally it is showing off Bernhard’s more than serviceable set of pipes. Once or twice at the performance I saw she committed the classic showbiz-American-in-Europe error of expecting applause simply for mentioning some acquaintance or event and being momentarily caught out when none came.
In many of these respects she reminds me of Joan Rivers, who played the same venue last autumn. The attempt to have one’s cake and eat it by being both celebrity and gadfly at once is something the two performers have in common. So, to a degree, is facial work. Bernhard is nothing like as nipped and tucked as Rivers (who is?), but nevertheless, when she speaks of “having some light injectibles performed by my dermatologist”, it has more than a whiff of Riveresesque pre-emption about it. She still has a full set of performance “chops”; I wish I had seen her back in the day when she also had facial expressions.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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