Writer: Dawn French
Director: Michael Grandage
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
One undeniable truth from The Universal Handbook of the Blindingly Obvious goes as follows: Dawn French is a very funny woman. She has demonstrated this in a variety of ways throughout her long and successful career; via sketch-based revues, Comic Relief stage appearances, highly successful sitcoms (including the peerless Vicar of Dibley) and, oh, just so many outlets whereby her formidable talents have shone through and beyond lesser phenomena. But never before had she essayed that ultimate performer’s challenge: the full-scale solo gig. Now, she’s been there, done that and – as usual – she’s carried off a brilliant success.
French is clearly at that time of life when she has a sense of perspective long and accurate enough for her to use her own experiences directly, as material for this highly polished concept. She effortlessly charts a course through her 30 million minute life so far, to entertain and enthrall a rapturous audience in nigh on two hours of virtuoso comedy, wisdom and not a little pathos. Dawn herself describes this first ever solo tour as “…somewhere between a monologue, a play, and an autobiographical slide show with a few funnies thrown in“. As a summary, that’s highly apt.
The format is extremely effective, with a giant video projection onto the stage back-cloth, conjuring up images of relatives and scenes from those 30 million minutes, diagrams to illustrate body insecurities and one-liner emphases to complement the flow of the narrative on stage. So tightly integrated was this technical support with the live performance, that one could readily appreciate the perfectionism at work here. This was no off the cuff chat-fest, but a beautifully-written, sharply-observed, warm and witty series of monologues wherein, at regular intervals, mention of a person close to French would see that person appear on the screen, interacting with the performer to devastating effect. It’s an astounding feat of memory as much as anything else – and French maintains such an elevated level of performance and holds the audience’s attention so completely for the whole time alone in the spotlight, that we’re left more than a little awed. This is a master class of highly original comedy, punctuated with soul-baring revelations to take us, breathlessly riveted, on the proverbial roller-coaster ride of Dawn’s lifetime.
It all works so well, and a standing ovation followed as night follows day, from an audience that had laughed till its sides ached, been struck dumb by some incredibly poignant moments of revelation and – occasionally – been moved to tears as Dawn ran the gamut of emotions which reflect any life that’s endured so many millions of minutes. Little if anything is done purely for effect, all is relevant to her life’s journey – and some of the stops along the way take us into the realms of visceral anger, bitterness and loss. These are not easy emotions to convey without rather pouring cold water on what is, after all, a solo comedy show at heart. But the context is always right and French always manages to find the right level and to follow shade with light, tragedy with happiness and anger with a self-affirming and exultant joy – particularly in the deeply fulfilled place she now, we are happy to learn, finds herself.
It’s an awesome performance, in terms of both range and endurance. It’s also highly recommended to anyone wishing to laugh out loud as well as having their thoughts provoked, their assumptions challenged and their insecurities brilliantly addressed. If you’ve ever struggled with questions like “How do you be a woman?” or “How do you be married?” – then this is the show for you. You might not relate to all the answers, but you will be made to laugh, to think and perhaps to cry. And you will be royally entertained by the Queen of British Comedy.
Runs until: July 5 at this venue, then touring until December 6