Review: Dawn French's overly staged show offers laughs, but lacks spontaneity

Dawn French is in Aotearoa for a series of one-woman shows.
Dawn French is in Aotearoa for a series of one-woman shows. Photo credit: Marc Brenner - Supplied

REVIEW: Dawn French is a comedy legend.

Having been in the business since 1987, she's been a mainstay of UK comedy. From French and Saunders to The Vicar of Dibley, chances are you will have seen at least one of her performances in your lifetime.

Certainly if the sold-out crowd at Auckland's Civic Theatre on an abysmal dreary night were an indication of anything, French's tour will prove to be extremely popular - despite some questionable quality and overly staged moments.

The theme of French's show is obvious  - a celebration of a life filled with mistakes but no regrets.

From a sparse stage that comprises solely of a neon-tube mounted video, this is a stripped back experience that allows the iconic comedian to shine brightly as she dispatches anecdotes from her showbiz past to a church of long-term converts.

Yet what transpires over two hours (thankfully with no support), is that this is not a show for stand-up or comedy; it's a chance for French to revel in her showbiz embarrassments past and to continuously name-drop celebs whom she's debased herself in front of.

From a genuinely riotous faux pas at a London theatre to a highly amusing costuming anecdote from Sir Elton John's 50th birthday, there are plenty of moments that stand out, thanks to a solid breadcrumbing of sequences that revel in absurdity and deliver a killer conclusion.

Yet this is an evening of gentle mirth, rather than belly-aching laughter. It's somewhat muted at times - and with French refusing to be swayed off her course of talkshow-style anecdotes, there's a distinct feeling of distance - almost like attending a book reading.

A second-half attempt by an audience member to pitch in is swiftly met by a "shush now" from French before she heads back on script; this is not a show for interaction, and while she's genial enough with the would-be interrupter, there's a feeling of performance over engagement.

Self-deprecation is all very well, but far too much of French's sell-out show has her finishing anecdotes with "what a huge twat" as a conclusion, due to a lack of a real punchline. It's akin to a child's essay writing, where everything concludes with a "it was good" denouement - and you throw your hands up in the air at a lack of creativity.

There are plenty of name drops from a glittering career, but not every moment is a diamond.
There are plenty of name drops from a glittering career, but not every moment is a diamond. Photo credit: Marc Brenner - Supplied

It's fine the first few times but quickly becomes grating as a punchline throughout.

Much of the show feels staged and over-performed and while it's not stand-up per se, the art form and delivery rely on spontaneity, rather than a feeling of being overdone. Far too often there's a lack of the sizzle and absurdity that French has made of her career on show.

That said, there are times when asides feel wonderfully tossed to the audience as if they're spontaneous moments (though it seems highly unlikely). It's here the show crackles and the Civic feels alive as it heads from one story to the next with only the common thread of French putting her foot in it.

Sure, it's aimed at celebrating the fact we are only human and celebs are just like us normies (who knew, eh?) but with a strong first-half easily better than a weaker second, it feels like the 66-year-old doyenne of the scene is running out of her own material.

Big-screen flashes of previous sketches from her pantheon of comedic entrants remind us constantly of her brilliance - and moments such as when she reveals how she tried to sing for a disastrous audition for Mamma Mia demonstrate that all it takes is the briefest of bursts, coupled with facials, to induce laughter. 

Dawn French's show will appeal to long-term fans.
Dawn French's show will appeal to long-term fans. Photo credit: Marc Brenner - Supplied

The irony of all of this is that the tour has sold out across Aotearoa. Seats will be filled, and laughter (albeit quieter than expected) will be had. Sure, it's a solid performance from an English comedy great and the show is critic-proof; moments of mockery will leave you admiring the congenial host in her overly scripted outing, rather than regretting heading out.

But you're never fully left with a feeling that French has the audience wanting more - it's a curious enigma from the show and a side effect of the rambling storytelling style.

She's lovable enough, but it's hard to shake a feeling it could have been more.

Though one suspects should she read this review, her reaction to it would be much like her oft-quoted show refrain.

Dawn French's show continues in Auckland, before heading to Wellington and Christchurch.