According to the government, being over the age of 70 means Lynn Ruth Miller is “vulnerable”. It’s the last word that would have crossed your mind watching her perform at Soho’s speakeasy-like Phoenix Arts Club on Sunday, as she crooned her risqué songs and tossed condoms into the crowd like confetti.
The American comic and unlikely cabaret artist was there to celebrate her 87th birthday; the front few tables were even treated to a slice of cake. She had dressed to the nines for the occasion: neon-pink leggings, a dress she was given by a showgirl in Moscow, and a pair of heels which she only removed at the end of the night, in order to climb up onto the bar for an encore of All That Jazz.
As “the world’s oldest performing comedienne,” all Miller really needs to do to impress her audience is exist, and she knows it. “Gasp as she bends to tie a shoelace!” an ironic voiceover boomed, introducing her like a kind of carnival attraction. “See how she breathes totally unaided!” (A particularly dark gag in the year of the ventilator.)
Accompanied by a pianist, she sang in a style that could be charitably described as a mix of Ethel Merman and the late Jeremy Hardy – low on polish, high on chutzpah. “You think I’m finished/ almost dead/ but I’m a b---- in the kitchen/ and a tiger in bed.”
Her funniest material came with an early routine about the difficulties of the over-Eighties dating scene. She’s been on Channel 4’s First Dates, but she usually looks for beaux in newspapers: “I read the obituaries column for romantic leads.” Elsewhere, the quality of her comic writing might be patchy – not every anecdote found its way towards a punchline – but as the show progressed, it became clear that wasn’t really the point.
The point was, rather, to show how she had found her voice after a life of hardship and setbacks: her struggle with eating disorders; the time she broke her foot, aged 80, and was told by a doctor she’d never walk again; the time when she was living in a rough neighbourhood, “between a group of Hell’s Angels and a whorehouse,” and was attacked in her home by a trespasser who beat within an inch of her life. Since that day, she said, she’s been determined to live fearlessly.
It’s clear she has been doing exactly that, and relishing every minute since taking the stage for the first time, at the age of 71. “This has been the best year of my life!” Miller beamed. “Of course, I can’t remember any of the others.”