Is this the last time we’re going to see Billy Connolly performing live in London? Given his current medical condition – he’s visibly suffering from Parkinson’s, has had treatment for prostate cancer, and has talked about his increasing forgetfulness – it’s an inescapable thought as his High Horse tour, first seen in Scotland in 2014, rides into town.
And it’s detectable in the protracted applause that greets him on his opening night (not to mention the reported big surge in demand for tickets). Offering his thanks for the warm, grateful reception, Connolly (73) immediately gets a laugh out of bluntly identifying what’s going on: “You’re only doing that coz I’m not well…” he says, “I can tell the f***ing sympathy vote!”
If this does prove to be a final lap of honour for the Scottish giant, it’s no sentimental journey but business as usual: richly anecdotal, pretension-pricking, often ribald, even if these days quite a lot of below-the-belt material comes at the expense of his ailments. Here’s ample confirmation in sum that he’s still quick on his pins to see the funny side of life (and death too) and can still impart his fool’s wisdom with the ease of a consummate story-teller.
Since I last saw him, 15 months ago, in Aberdeen, the grey-haired Big Yin has become slightly frailer, and leaner – more motionless too in his long-backed black shirt. Back then, I rejoiced at this newfound inertia – it sheds that rather tiresome habit he had of doubling-up at his own jokes; this time, I marvelled yet more at how much physicality he nonetheless manages to pack into his newly constrained demeanour.
That he has an incredible gift for phrasing, and timing, is not remotely in doubt. Reminiscing about his wild-card cousin John he pays tribute with a right hook, left hook, knock-out fistful of gallows’ humour: “He’s dead now – he f***ing worked at it. Nobody deserved it more.” Later comes the equally pithy, and memorable aside: “I know a Scottish guy who loved his wife so much he actually told her one day.”
But in painting each scene for us with the subtlest gestures, he displays the finesse of a mime artist. Whether it’s his anxieties about stepping onto an airport travellator at the right speed, a cunning trick of slicing a banana without peeling it, or the way he’s often made to sheepishly stand around waiting for fans to fish out their phones to take a selfie, just an inclination of the head, a step to one side, a briefly struck posture and, what a wizard, we’re experiencing it with him.
His two-hour garrulous flow winds up with him reliving a trip for Comic Relief to the interior of Mozambique in a titchy twin-engine plane – he flaps his arms, gently bobs up and down, and we feel the turbulence with him, relive his terror at the approaching bank of trees. Even from the circle, with no TV-relay screens, his understated antics pack a cinematic punch.
What is the Connolly world-view? There’s no topical material to speak of this time. More than ever it’s as if his mission – his legacy too – lies in his manner: a perpetual, saving vigilance, ever on the look-out for life’s absurdities, often as not right under our noses. Still somehow in his prime, even as he perhaps approaches his final bow, he has shown us, in unflinching Glaswegian style, that you don’t need to pass from childhood through adulthood to second childhood, but continue to live, as a wide-eyed infant would, in the moment, observing it all in amused wonder.
Until Feb 6. Tickets: 0844 249 1000; eventim.co.uk