It's impossible to dislike the persona we think
of when we think of Dawn French - her clownlike, down-to-earth warmth and sense
of approachable 'ordinariness' make us feel that we actually know her. Whether
from the original
The closest most of us will get to her accepting our fantasy dinner party invitation and it's a darned good replacement too.
The title refers to the amount of time Dawn has filled so far in her 58 years of life and therefore gives her license to cover any topic she likes. Primarily she has chosen just two - her family life (from child to parent) and her body; not unexpected as we feel we have got to know "our friend Dawn" well enough over the years to now hear her share more about both of the areas on which she has spoken many times before. The familiarity of the territories is comfortable and enables her to make us laugh with her usual mixture of facial gurning, funny walks, MC Hammer dancing and hairbrush singing, but also to move us with stories of her father's depression and suicide, her medical problems with her 'lady bits' and subsequently feeling bullied by the press, and the much publicised breakdown of her first marriage to Lenny Henry. And she gets the balance just about right - it doesn't feel like an over-share in the style of the interviews Piers Morgan has capitalised on, and for stories so personal, her everyday delivery makes it very inclusive, as though she really is talking to us as individuals rather than as a theatre audience.
The staging adds to the feel of this being like an autobiographical book - a style she didn't actually use in her own autobiography, Dear Fatty, yet does here. It's just her walking around a bare stage, with a frame behind her that holds family photos and film clips to illustrate stories - sweet, and drawing 'oohs' and 'aahs' from the audience when we see little Dawn through various stages of her life, as well as the rather embarrassing fashions of the time. Much here relies on the shared memories of the 70s and 80s ("we had that horrible wallpaper" and "she's right about hotpants only suiting Twiggy" came from the woman next to me) that adds to the sense of the familiar which then 'frames' the more unusual and personal stories. (It must be said that there will be little to which anyone under 40 can relate but, judging by the audience demographic when I saw it, this probably isn't harming ticket sales). You could argue that there's little difference here to the family photos you find in the centre of a printed celebrity autobiography that, if you're like me, you quickly flick through with no more than a glance - but here, whilst adding little, they do help to change the focus on stage and make this more 'theatrical' than what could otherwise seem like a simple book reading.
I say 'reading' because if there is one grumble here, it's that for all the inclusivity and personal stories Dawn tells, there are times when it does feel very scripted and a little over-rehearsed or performed (she has toured this show for quite a while prior to coming to the West End and I get the feeling nothing has changed in the gap between). On a couple of occasions when she stumbled over words in the script, there was no 'off the cuff' remark or spontaneity in the moment - breaking the illusion that this is a 'personal' conversation. And there are a few stories we have heard in interviews and suchlike before... with the same pathos balancing the emotion with a punchline. Of course we know it's scripted and are used to seeing stand-up that includes previously heard routines - but this isn't stand-up we're watching here and we feel (unjustly) a little cheated. We don't want to be reminded that this isn't really her sharing with just us, it's simply reading some stories - we've convinced ourselves that this is a unique experience and want to see her occasionally going off script or improvising just for us. And she doesn't of course - she is 'acting' and when this is obvious, a key selling point is shattered.
However, it happens rarely and is a small point that won't do anything to ruin the show for any fan of Dawn French. She comes across as warm and friendly, deep and silly, and manages to illicit both tears and laughter - sometimes with little more than a change of sentence - in this deeply personal tale. She could have done two hours of pure stand-up, which would have drawn immediate comparisons with the French and Saunders days, but by deciding instead to share her life story, she has eschewed any such comparisons. It's just Dawn - "our Dawn" - and we feel all the better that we have been a part of her life for a couple of hours - it's the closest most of us will get to her accepting our fantasy dinner party invitation and it's a darned good replacement too.