When Wayne Rooney is called a national treasure you know something's up. Like 'legend' and 'genius', it's been over used and misused so that anyone who's been on the telly for more that five minutes is an automatic candidate. Tonight I've found a surprising but truly worthy candidate in Julian Clary.
Having grown up watching him on on Saturday Live with heavy makeup, a leather collar and spikes, I wasn't sure what to expect. We were after all at the Crazy Coqs, one of London's swankiest cabaret rooms. I assumed we'd get a hard hitting, acerbic set designed to keep us on their toes and ever so slightly afraid. I couldn't have been more wrong.
This Julian Clary was charming, gracious, gentle, intelligent and quick to smile at his own preposterous (but probably true) stories. It's a clever ploy. By wrapping us up in his cozy warmth even the inevitable bum jokes and references to Norman Lamont didn't seem smutty or cheap. You can't help but like him. His everyday observations had me thinking more than once of Alan Bennett. “I don't have children,” he tells us, “but I've often thought that waiting for your suitcase to appear on the carousel at the airport must be very like standing at the school gates waiting for your kids to come out.”
He sang in the Professor Higgins speaking style only four or five times. The rest of the set was a collection of anecdotes about holidaying with his mum, cheating on his partner, and his affair with a confused people smuggler. With each one he shared a little more about himself. Like all great cabaret performers his honestly shattered the forth wall and fostered intimacy amongst strangers. Simon Wallace at the piano provided the ideal unimpressed stooge.
The laughter was suspended mid-set when he sang the Nick Cave's 'Into My Arms'. It's a moving lyric which Clary the actor delivered with poetic sensitivity. The moment could have been even more poignant had he contextualised it with a reference to finding true love (or not) in his own life. It did though show a maturity and confidence by suspending the laughs in favour of a theatrical arc.
Anyone who's read Cabaret Secrets will know the importance of leaving the audience with a poignant “message”, some kind of sincere wish or thoughtful reflection that makes us stop and think. Clary did just that closing with a song of his own reminding us that gay rights still languish in the dark ages in many parts of the world. Whereas John Barrowman can't help shoving his sexuality down our throats, Clary's subtlety makes him a far more effective politician.
Julian Clary has grown up. He's had the highlife snorting crystal meth (by accident, he says) in New York and these days prefers to walk the dogs in Kent. What we get is an intelligent performance from a man comfortable in his own skin who's ready to share himself with his audience.
It was a sublime blend of music, wit and camperoo that left me in no doubt Julian Clary is indeed a national treasure.