Dawn French: 30 Million Minutes

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 Comic Strip Presents... (first broadcast 30 years ago, just to make you feel old), her partnership with 'Fatty' Saunders, or as Vicar Geraldine - the characters she plays never seem that far from her real personality (even with some of the more surreal French and Saunders sketches, we still see her own silliness underneath) and so she isn't someone we think of as being 'starry' or 'celebrity'. For many women and gay men of a certain age (which seems to be over 40), she likely tops the list of guests we would invite to our fantasy ideal dinner party. And in her first ever solo show, 30 Million Minutes, she brings us all the loveliness we hoped for by letting us into her real life even more - but not in the style of a typical stand-up show that you may have expected, this is pure autobiography (with enough jokes and silly bits thrown in to keep us amused).

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.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

The Prisoner

★★
Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Dawn French, the Queen of British comedy, performs her first ever solo tour. The award-winning actor, best-selling novelist and all round very funny lady has written a new show, based on her life and career, called 30 Million Minutes.

30 Million Minutes will consist of various delights and riches, with the odd irksome tribulation thrown in, as Dawn takes audiences through the various lessons life has taught her, and the things she knows for sure.

Book for this show now, because Dawn French is convinced it won't be long before she is far too doolally to perform it.

The evidence is there for all to see. She is already three quarters certifiably daft. The other quarter is utterly bewildered. And the remaining quarter simply can't do maths. With a sharp eye for comic detail and a wicked ear for the absurdities of life, Dawn French of Cornwall shares how she has misguidedly spent her whole life vigorously attempting to be a fully functioning female human.

Her extraordinary lack of willpower, combined with an enviable knack for nosey parking and showing off, has driven her to grapple with the big stuff of life in public. 30 million minutes of life in fact. That's how long she's been alive.

It's also worth coming if only to finally witness what size she actually is. Can we believe the stolen images of so many women's magazines? What is the truth? Is she so unfeasibly large that she can hardly live? Or does she sleep in a matchbox? Marvel at how one woman can mercilessly murder so much chocolate, and yet remain so curiously slim…