When I saw that Dawn French was going to tour a solo show I knew instantly that I had to see it. Locally it was first scheduled to be on at the Milton Keynes Theatre, so I went to book it and I saw that the tickets were… £60! Really? Can I justify spending £120 for both of us to see a stand-up? I’ve never spent more than the high 30s for a comedian and they were Very Big Names Indeed. So I made a momentous decision – I didn’t book, based on a Value For Money judgment (just like I didn’t book for Kate Bush).
Then some weeks later it was announced that Miss French would be on at the Royal and Derngate. I wondered if good old “Bargain Northampton” would welcome her at slightly reduced prices. I quivered as I made my way to the Box Office Counter. “How much are you charging for Dawn French tickets?” The lady there was slightly bemused as she’s seen me there many times before and I’ve never asked such a thing. “£39.50. With your friends’ discount, £38.50.” Sold to the gentleman with the avid credit card. And people ask us why we love Northampton.
Thirty Million Minutes is roughly the time that Dawn French has been around on this planet, hence the name of the show, and I kind of guessed that’s what the title would refer to. However, I wasn’t at all expecting the content of the show. I can’t say that it was an unexpected delight, or an unexpected disappointment – it was just completely unexpected! I thought it would be “just another” stand-up comedy show; even though I can’t remember her ever just telling jokes or doing a stand-up type routine, I still imagined this would be the timbre of the evening.
Wrong. Thirty Million Minutes is like a live autobiography. 100% scripted, to the accompaniment of a video wall and sound plot, this is 2 hours 5 minutes (including interval) of soliloquised confessional. Initially I was disappointed, because I like my comedians to be loose enough to engage with the audience and go in different directions if that’s how the wind blows. When you’re chained to a running picture and sound commentary (as in Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation) there’s only one direction in which you can progress, and you just have to hope it’s what your audience wants. Well, that was one thing Dawn French need have no worry about. It was certainly one of the warmest and friendliest receptions for a performer I have seen for a long time. The audience (maybe 80% female?) was completely on her side from the start and constantly gave her encouraging laughs, sighs, murmurs, groans and supportive rounds of applause as the show went on, pretty much irrelevant as to whether the material actually warranted it. Because it was such a personal show, all the material was very female-centric, which felt slightly odd to me (maybe because Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t with me that night, she was wheeling and dealing with the top brass in the USA, so I couldn’t tune in to her first-hand female appreciation). I also felt at times, particularly in the first part of the show, that it was a little over-sentimental, with several “aaaaahhh”’s for cute photos of little Dawn and her brother, with their mum and dad, and an affectionate round of applause for a photo of Eric Morecambe.
But you have to hand it to her, she was able to create a family feeling to the whole show, and by the time we were into the second half, it was like listening to a much loved but only rarely seen cousin, going through old photos and reminiscing together about what great times we used to have. A few drinks, a few laughs, and it’s like we never lost contact. There’s a very nice balance too, between the complete sincerity of what she shares of her private life, and the fact that she still doesn’t take herself too seriously, and happily points out her (not quite hourglass) figure, and the fact that she’s got man’s legs and no neck. And she can’t hold back from doing some ridiculous (but perfectly genuine) disco dancing – as indeed none of us can when the mood takes us.
The family recollections became deeper and more moving as the evening went on – with very enjoyable stories about the two grannies, the very sad account of her father’s death, her unswerving love for her brother and her mum, the very honest memories of marriage with Lenny Henry, her immense love for and pride in for her daughter, and her “wow-factor” for her new husband. Go back twenty years and imagine Michael Parkinson on his BBC show; these are the kind of private memories he could teased out of one of his best ever Saturday night interviewees. By the end you really feel that you’ve got to know the inner Dawn extremely well – you can share secrets with her, ask if she needs anything from the shops and maybe even your and her family could go on holiday together for a week or so. That’s the kind of relationship you now have. With all the supportive women fans in the audience, I’m surprised they didn’t all accompany Dawn to the Ladies’ Loo in the interval – that’s what girls do, right?
So whilst I was slightly uncertain of how much I was enjoying the show at the interval, and part of me still wanted her to be able to break off and engage one-to-one with a few of us, I really liked it by the end. But I can tell you the majority of the audience absolutely loved it all the way through. Well worth £38.50!