When Dawn French strides on stage at the Vaudeville Theatre for Thirty Million Minutes,
it’s not as a comedy partner to Fatty Saunders (her affectionate term, not ours) or as a Dibley-based vicar or as Val who’s just got in. No, this is a solo show and she holds her own, filling the theatre with huge likeability and raw honesty as she talks us through the highs and lows of being Dawn French.
Now 58, she’s spent the thirty million minutes of the title on earth so far – give or take a million or two because, as the ticking clock of a backdrop reminds us, time is flying by. She’ll be older by the time she finishes her run at the Vaudeville and, given that she gives it everything she’s got, probably knackered too but let’s assure her that she leaves us older and wiser too.
Having toured the country with the show, French says it isn’t stand-up and it isn’t monologues, more a combination of the two with a slide show thrown in and thus “it’s me having a little romp through my life”. I couldn’t have summed it up better. She’s taken autobiographical details from her Dear Fatty
memoirs and expanded on them audio visually, thus we don’t just hear about the day the Queen Mother came to visit (scaring young Dawn with her black teeth) we also see a clip of said visit.
There are, as you’d expect, some hilarious stories – like her adventures being a bridesmaid, then seeking to upstage others in the funniest look-at-me outfit ever when not chosen herself. She talks about looking like Harry Secombe and worshipping Eric Morecambe, wonders out loud how many holes a woman has and leaves the audience to figure it out for themselves (clue: the nostrils count), and gives a big F-you to certain factions of the press who obsess over her weight when Dawn herself is happy and healthy and couldn’t give a shit what they think. Oh and there’s something in there about rimming... and of course chocolate gets a few shout-outs.
London audiences are, to offer a massive generalisation, harder to warm up than in the provinces, and this scripted show – without, so far as I could tell, much room for improvisation – takes a while before she relaxes into the rhythm of it. I also wonder if the section where she recounts her father’s suicide, standing to one side as images are projected on the screen and the tragic narrative unfolds in voice over, wouldn’t be more powerful if Dawn addressed the audience directly. But then the friend I attended the show with – a remarkable lady who has suffered more personal tragedy than I could ever imagine being able to cope with – quite rightly pointed out that it would be just too painful for French to tell that story night after night.
She talks in the souvenir programme about how tricky it is to delve into sadness and loss and anger when people expect her to be funny. It’s a trick this funniest of ladies pulls off with great skill. Yes, I’d prefer some stories about Saunders and showbiz in the mix but it’s about Dawn French the woman and the mother, the daughter and the wife and you leave the theatre admiring the hell out of her.
Thirty Million Minutes is at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until December 9th
0844 482 9675, nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre, dawnfrenchontour.com, @Dawn_French
Words by SIMON BUTTON
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