Mouth and trousers

With or without the high heels, this show is hypnotic and hilarious

<strong>Eddie Izzard: Str

"Where's ya heels?" is the cry that greets Eddie Izzard as he takes the stage for Stripped, his first West End show in longer than a decade. He is far from shabbily decked out in a red-satin-lined frock coat, striped shirt and smart black leather loafers, but it's still a bit conventional for those hoping to be wowed by the miniskirted Izzard of old. "Don't oppress me, you Nazi," he snaps back. "It is my right in a post-Obama world to wear anything I like."

Izzard may have found his place in our hearts as a cross-dressing comic, but over the years he has become more than that: a consummate showbiz professional in an age when stars are more likely to check into rehab than go on with the show; a practitioner of ferociously intelligent, defiantly silly humour that never lapses into Ross-Brand mean-spiritedness. He is an adopter of unfashionable causes - he has campaigned passionately for the European Union - and a grafter who honed his act during years as a street performer and gigger.

Rather than resting on his laurels once he hit the comedy big time both here and in the States, he set about pursuing a career in serious acting. (It is proving elusive, though: The Riches, a US television drama series he co-wrote and starred in, has just been cancelled after its second season.)

Never mind Obama - Izzard has earned his own right to wear trousers if he darn well wants. We know we can count on him to deliver two hours of blissful, non-stop laughter, and Stripped certainly does that.

Izzard presents the show as an argument against the existence of God, citing evidence from world history from the Stone to the Cyber Ages. Its atheist stance might have seemed edgier in America, where the show was on tour before arriving in the UK, and some of the pops Izzard takes at religion are less original than his other material ("If I were God, I would have just flicked Hitler's head off, wouldn't you?"). But while irreverent, the show is never tetchy or offensive: Izzard may have joined the Dawkins-Hitchens team but he avoids their unpleasantly superior manner.

In fact, the theological theme is almost irrelevant, as it quickly becomes apparent that it is little more than an excuse to introduce the cast of talking squid, oboe-playing praying mantises and stoned squirrels that Izzard audiences know and love. The questions raised here (Why would God create dinosaurs? Why would an intelligent designer give cows four stomachs and human beings an appendix?) are not dissimilar to those tackled by Dawkins et al. In Izzard's hands, however, they spin off into a series of surreal tableaux: a dinosaur vicar delivers a menacing, growling version of "All Things Bright and Beautiful", an appendix phones the intelligent design department to complain about his wasted life. Alas, my scribbled notes from the evening do not explain exactly how a velociraptor, wearing a pork-pie hat, came to be pulled over by the police for speeding, but it made perfect sense at the time.

Similarly the journey through history provides a jumping-off point for an inspired series of comic set pieces. We meet the Stone Age teenagers trying to explain the new technology to their uncomprehending parents - "You young kids with your stones . . . how do they work, then?" - and the weavers of the Bayeux Tapestry, who become the paparazzi of their day. One brilliant sequence has a Roman messenger trying to raise the alarm and being stymied by the complexities of Latin grammar: "Alarum? Alaribus?" Each one is brought alive by the brilliance of Izzard's mime. He makes it look easy, but try doing a giraffe playing charades and see how far you get.

The pleasure in an Izzard show builds gradually throughout the evening as he introduces characters and themes that resurface in different contexts, becoming more familiar and funnier each time. The jazz chicken, the surfer dude squirrel and other creations appear to be spontaneous, but later become indispensably woven into the narrative.

It is impossible to tell how much of this madness is scripted - Izzard says that he writes nothing down and continues to try out new material in every show - but the effect is both hilarious and hypnotic. As we're talking animals, Izzard resembles nothing so much as a skillful spider, catching the whole auditorium in his web.

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