Writer: Dawn French
Director: Michael Grandage
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
There are many faces to Dawn French and, after a long career in comedy, you may think you’ve seen them all. But in her – somewhat sentimental – new show,Thirty Million Minutes, she shows us a new side entirely, one that is perhaps closest to who she really is.
In the popular imagination, comedy partners are always tied to one another so when one half breaks off into a solo project there’s usually a lot of interest. Although French has devised and starred in countless projects without her forever-comedy-other, Jennifer Saunders, from the superb Murder Most Horrid to The Vicar of Dibley, this is her first one-woman show.
This is an evening which is entirely autobiographical as French walks the audience through the 30 million minutes, or 58 years, of her life using pictures and videos largely from her childhood. It’s an entirely family-based affair and one that is considerably more emotional than the audience may expect. “It’s a leap in a way,” French explains in the programme notes, “sometimes people get very greedy about laughs and, in this show, I’m not going to deliver a gag per minute.” It is a risk to confound expectations in this way and one that partially pays off.
The first half of the show is best with French warning the audience they’ve luckily caught her between the madness of menopause and that of dementia. Then she rattles through her early years with her mum, idolised RAF father and brother using some lovely comic stories integrated with projected photographs and videos. The best section of the show examines her body image where she admits to the chocolate-eating value of her hands but contends that she’s been given the legs of Harry Secombe. This nicely leads in to a well-judged and timely rant about the media pressure on female celebrities to be a certain shape and French adds power to her arguments by layering one ridiculous headline after another on the screen commenting on her size. The fact she couldn’t care less is an admirable message to be sending as the first half closes.
The second part is somewhat less successful and as French venerates one family member after another including grandmas, her daughter and both husbands, the laughs almost cease entirely and this begins to feel like more of a This is Your Life catharsis than comedy show. While challenging audience expectations with a more human story works in part, people have still arrived primed for laughter and in this section it felt as though the show had been overloaded with sentiment rather than meeting the audience half way with a few more jokes.
French’s performance is very warm, however, and, although some of the stories feel over rehearsed, lacking that feeling of spontaneity, there are a good few laugh-out-loud moments including the teenage Dawn hilariously miming to A Whiter Shade of Pale (she could participate in one of Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battles) and some great comedy dancing.
As a family-based story, there’s no discussion of her career so perhaps this is will be the subject of the next tour. You leave feeling you knowing the 30 million minutes of French’s life considerably better but perhaps in this 120 minutes not having laughed as much as you intended.
Runs until: 9 December 2015 | Image: Contributed