Dawn French Is A Huge T---, review: French is self-deprecating from the very first punchline
For someone at the heart of Britain's alternative comedy scene from the beginning - joining The Comic Strip with Jennifer Saunders in 1980 - Dawn French is still a spring chicken when it comes to stand-up.
Her last tour, 30 Million Minutes (2014-16) was the Vicar of Dibley star's first proper stand-up show. It distilled a full life into two hours, from her pin-sharp childhood memories to her grief over her father's death, via her complicated relationship with her body (hurdles including IVF, a miscarriage, and the media's obsession with her fluctuating weight).
Fans might be wondering whether French has any territory left to explore in this follow-up. The answer is yes, just about: showbiz. "Dawn French is a Huge T--t" is a string of gently amusing behind-the-curtain anecdotes from her stage and screen career, from Harry Potter to Murder Most Horrid, illustrated with copious projected photos and the odd video clip, and all ending with the same self-putdown ("WHAT A T--T!").
In theory, it's evidence of her "ubert--tness", but the title implies more bad behaviour than she admits to. Aside from losing her temper at a costume assistant - a divaish one-off, she promises - it's innocuous stuff. "Dawn French is Occasionally A Bit Embarrassed" might have been a more accurate, if less box-office-friendly, title.
She's self-deprecating from the very first punchline: "I am roly-poly 80s comedian Dawn French, and you're not, which frankly makes you the winner." It's low-stakes until the second half, where she tells the story of how recreating her famous Dibley pond-splash on a chat show left her with an excruciating knee injury; it's impossible to hear without wincing along in sympathy.
French has reunited with Michael Grandage, the director who brought theatrical heft - but also a certain studied staginess - to 30 Million Minutes. For all his talents, I can't help wondering if a stand-up specialist (someone like the much-missed Paul Byrne) might have been better able to refine these anecdotes into laugh-out-loud routines.
In a programme note, Grandage explains he and French wanted this show to be "a piece of visual theatre". But really, this is that hoary old genre, the "An Evening With..." show. You know, the kind where ex-colleagues are "wonderful", and stories tend to begin the way French starts one here: "My friend Elton John - KLANG! - throws the best parties..." Still, it has one great "visual theatre" effect: French's face, frowning and boggling one minute, stretching into that oblong smile the next, is an expertly manipulated precision device. For her devotees (who are legion, as press night's standing ovation showed) the chance to see it close-up is worth the cost of a ticket.