Just Jim Dale marks the return of the Carry On film star to the West End after an absence of twenty years, when he took over as Fagin in the Sam Mendes Oliver! revival at the Palladium. He went to Broadway in 1974 with the Young Vic's production of Molière's Scapino and more or less stayed there, originating the title role of Barnum in 1980.
So here he is, incredibly lithe and light on his pins aged 79, looking and sounding very much the same as he did not only at the Young Vic but also at the Old Vic, where he was Gobbo to Olivier's Shylock and Costard the clown in Olivier's glorious revival of Love's Labour's Lost.
His show, which originated at the Roundabout in New York three years ago, would be a run-of-the-mill supper club diversion were it not for the insistence with which Dale roots it in the history and traditions of music hall. He tells us about his life over six decades in the theatre, starting with dance lessons in a Northamptonshire village; his first West End theatre visit to see Lupino Lane in Me and My Girl – the show he starred in on Broadway in 1987; and his apprenticeship in a touring talent show.
One of his impromptu acts is a pas de deux – on his own – when his partner fails to make the audition. After a spell as a warm-up act for the BBC's first television pop programme, Six-Five Special, he becomes a pop singer himself (and a song writer – "Georgy Girl" is his, with Tom Springfield) and plays the halls he'd previously visited on variety bills.
Okay, the show is a nostalgia jag, but Dale is so delightfully engaging and funny about himself that even a sequence of clips from the Carry Ons – in which he did all his own stunts – is tolerable in reminding us of his clownish versatility. He sings from Barnum, recites from Shakespeare (using Bernard Levin's litany of familiar phrases we don't realise he wrote) and does that wonderful renunciation speech of a suburban salesman from Noël Coward's Fumed Oak.
He made the audio recordings of the Harry Potter books for the US and Canadian market (Stephen Fry, who revamped Me and My Girl, did the job here) and led a Broadway revival of Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, bringing up the Vaudeville houselights to regale us with that play's opening teacher's speech to a naughty classroom.
We make the journey with his first-rate piano accompanist, Mark York, and Richard Maltby Jr's production has just the right lightness and touch to place the vivacity of Dale's bubbling performance against the backdrop of a crumbling, fading theatrical interior without making the contrast seem either sentimental or maudlin. Like all the great vaudevillians, Dale makes you feel glad to be alive and even gladder that he is, after all these years.
Just Jim Dale runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 20 June 2015