Michael Barrymore's return to the British stage with a stand-up comedy routine has been derailed after he pulled out of the show.
by Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff
The seven-week stage run had been the latest step in Barrymore's long rehabilitation, both for his own self esteem and for his public reputation.
Barrymore's career was halted by the death of Stuart Lubbock
Early reports suggested he was making it a bright, bullish and buoyant occasion - a statement that he was back and still capable of making people laugh.
He received a standing ovation on his first night - but the acclaim was apparently short-lived and Barrymore's confidence seemed to unravel.
His personal life remains clouded by the death of Stuart Lubbock in his swimming pool two and a half years ago.
That became only too clear when he told producers at the Wyndham's Theatre in London that he could not go on, only minutes before curtain up.
Barrymore cited "personal reasons", blaming the pressure of the past two years.
Now, despite his manager's insistence that he will stay in showbusiness, a big question mark again hangs over his future as a popular entertainer.
It had been his first UK performance since being questioned over the death of Mr Lubbock. A coroner recorded an open verdict, although police found Barrymore to have had no part in Mr Lubbock's death.
Michael Barrymore appeared on GMTV after the inquest
A spokeswoman for the new production had described it as "physical" and "lively" - reminiscent of the TV shows that brought Barrymore huge fame.
He had seemed determined to move on from the memory of 31 March 2001, when Lubbock was found dead at his home in Roydon, Essex.
"I remember waking up one morning and thinking I'd be better off out of this. That was the emotional rollercoaster I was on," he told one interviewer.
"But I've had to face my fears. Going back on stage is one way of doing that."
Barrymore's career as one of the UK's most popular entertainers stopped in its tracks after Mr Lubbock died.
But after the inquest - during which Barrymore refused to talk about drug taking - there were still many unanswered questions.
His career appeared to be over after 20 years at the top, during which he was named Britain's most popular entertainer five times.
Barrymore with two trophies at the National Television Awards 2000
His first TV appearance after the tragedy was an interview with Martin Bashir during which he said: "I do feel responsible.
"I'm responsible for the house... I'm not responsible for [Lubbock's] demise."
But Barrymore recently said: "I didn't want to do that interview. I gave in against my wishes."
It turned out to be "a mess" and "horrible", he said.
Barrymore recorded one series of My Kind Of Music for ITV before being dumped.
It was shown in February 2002, and pulled in about 5.5 million viewers - compared with nine million who watched the same show before the death.
He continued to be solemn and remorseful - far from the bounding, boisterous entertainer who once appeared on screens.
He was hitting the headlines for his confessional interviews, but needed to revive his image as an entertainer - and started in a low-key way.
Heading down under, he performed a live tour in New Zealand and Australia, where he had been hugely popular - but the press backlash was less fierce.
Barrymore built his success on his zany persona
The first night in Auckland was a 2,300 sell-out - and fans saw the exuberant Barrymore of old.
He tied a press photographer to a chair, pulled a heckler on stage to sit on his knee and filled his show with sexual innuendo, declaring at the end: "I have got my life back."
But despite his Antipodean acclaim, people at home were still less willing to accept him back.
When a story about a possible TV comeback surfaced last month, it prompted vitriol from tabloids - and their readers.
The Sun printed letters from people who said Barrymore "fills me with disgust", "fills me with revulsion" condemning his "disgusting and disgraceful behaviour" and dismissing him as a "troubled old has-been".
Later that month, he appealed to TV executives during a discussion at an industry festival - but did not go down well, according to reports.
But he has got a film role lined up in the gangster comedy Peaches - plus more TV offers on the table.
"I don't want to go back on telly for the sake of going back," he told a newspaper.
Despite this week's first night ovation, ticket sales were reportedly poor and he received some bad notices from critics.
His manager said he would now take a break before considering his next step - which may involve another stint in Australia and New Zealand.
Whether he has the desire or the support to attempt another comeback in his native country remains to be seen.