Written by Tony Staveacre
Directed by Hannah Chissack
It’s a tough gig, being relegated to the Bingo Halls of Liverpool. Once a crowd-tickler, a herald for the working man’s club and provider of laughs, Jigsy was a dockworker turned stand-up who frequented the city’s timeless venues and like many, spoke with an illusion of happiness concealing the struggles of alcohol and the knowledge that his career was dying as quickly as the laughter.
As theatres remain dark, Liverpool’s Royal Court emerges into the online format to provide entertainment to those at home until the curtain can rise. At the request of Les Dennis, an abridged variation of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe success Jigsy was performed on May 18th on the Royal Court stage. Stand-up turned television icon and actor – Dennis accounts for the life and laughs in a biographical monologue which finds the comedian Jigsy at the dregs of both his pint glass and his career.
Beginning precisely where all best tales start, at the bottom of a glass, the physicality of the performance is there for Dennis, with the voice, language and characterisation gradually flowing. No stranger to stand-up, controlling crowds for decades, Dennis is as much a dab hand with the comedic delivery as he is with an emotional pay-off, even tossing in a couple of impressive impersonations of life-long fan favourites Tommy Cooper or Ken Dodd.
Unafraid to remove the visage of comedy, writer Tony Staveacre conjures intense visualisations of the surrounding locations of Liverpool, from Foxwell St. to the Birkenhead shipyards. It is here, where Stavecare’s structure allows the comedian’s memories of the HMS Thetis disaster, the austerity of the area and the perceived plight of the working man to ebb into the narrative – enabling Dennis to stretch his acting chops, offering a stark reminder that the presenter possesses an authentic theatrical ability.
Everything onstage is reliant on tight coordination between Dennis and director Hannah Chissack, who enhances the production’s ability to connect with variable audiences. In truth, the narrative will ring with a particular generation. This isn’t to say it fails to deliver on the whole – quite the opposite, Dennis’ energy enables those unfamiliar with the comics, location, or history of the city to engage with anecdotes. The staging is minimal but worn, evoking the unkemptness of a backstage ‘green room’. It can feel claustrophobic on screen, with the camera work a simple case of direct filming with little in the way of editing or complex angles. If anything, it reflects the production, which itself isn’t one for frilly aesthetics – it certainly feels as stripped back, raw, and direct as Jigsy would have felt comfortable. This confined atmosphere heightens the intensity as Dennis builds into a sensationally evocative rhythm, dampened merely by the pacing. There’s more to this man’s tale than the sobs of a clown; there’s a full-length production offering the breathing room, the adoration and capability of this team.
For as much as this love letter to the city, to the people, Jigsy speaks to the rich artistry of stand-up. Staveacre’s call back to the lost age of comedy builds in momentum, as the smiles fade into a grimace, and the tears roll down across the washed-out comedian’s face. The daunting realisation that the greats have struggled to find a place in the world. Tommy Cooper, Al Reid, Ken Dodd and yes, Jigsy, spoke for a legion of people who felt they had lost a voice, and Les Dennis pays tribute to this bygone time where all that was needed to get through the day was a smile, a pint, and a chuckle.
Available to stream here