She is unarguably one of our most beloved comedians, and not just because she’s very funny. Dawn French occupies a special place in the national psyche because we sense, for all her talent and success that she’s one of us. Her new show, Dawn French is a Huge T**t invites us to revel in the most excruciating gaffes and howlers of a forty-year career as a comedian and actor.
The 2022 leg of this hilarious one-woman show was met with critical acclaim and sold-out houses across the UK. Now, a further 38 dates have been scheduled for this year, kicking off in the autumn, with the Hall for Cornwall on November 8-10.
This show is not just an admission of huge gaffes, but a celebration of our gloriously messy common humanity. Dawn French likes a laugh, and she likes it best of all when the laugh is on her.
‘The people I love are flawed’, she said, ‘hilariously flawed and I can relate to that. If you think of the best laughs you have with people it’s when you say, ‘Oh my God, you’ll never guess what I did today?’ When you unzip and admit you’ve been a fool.’
As you’d expect, this is a funny show, but it is so much more than straightforward stand-up. It digs deeper into our human fallibility and the message has never been more timely. Dawn explains: “We live in a time when we’re told we’ve got to be perfect, and we’ve got filters and selfies and all we ever present is the good part. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I can’t relate to that because I know I can’t achieve it. I can’t look like that; I can’t be like that. I haven’t got that aspirational perfect life and I’ve got no time for it either.
‘My mum used to say, “we don’t do perfect” and she’s absolutely right. Don’t even aspire to it. Go on your journey knowing you’ll never get there. And even when you do make progress, don’t get too up your a*** about it because the mistakes are what make people so endearing.’
Dawn French’s willingness to lay bare her imperfections is not new. Her last one woman show, Thirty Million Minutes was a striking piece of theatre which explored the ups and downs of her life off-camera. A beautifully crafted two-hour exploration of her personal life, it went to the heart of her triumphs and tragedies. Few artists reveal themselves so vulnerably. Her gift for comedy was very much in evidence, but so too were moments of pathos so heart-stopping that audiences were reaching for their tissues. Like us, Dawn has lived. Unlike us, she’s had to fight battles that only those in the public eye can understand, but Dawn French won’t name any names. Well, she might.
Michael Grandage, the director of both Thirty Million Minutes and Dawn French is a Huge T**t, explains part of Dawn’s appeal: ‘Nobody punctures the myth of celebrity better than Dawn. She’s very willing to show that she’s actually a person just like us, and one way she does that is by showing that she can make mistakes.’
Grandage is what might be referred to as a man of substance. Possibly the most important theatre director working in Britain today, he is not the obvious choice for a comedian, but Dawn was adamant that she wanted to create something more than laugh-a-minute knockabout comedy. She needed a director who could bring muscle and real shape to her work and create a narrative arc from the landmarks of her life. ‘Dawn wanted to create a piece of visual theatre, more like a play, not just turn up and stand in front of a mike. The stories that Dawn is telling are personal but the way they’re dealt with is universal. This is about the common experience; the absolute best of what theatre should be.’
And what a common experience. It is a truism that whilst we might admire people for their accomplishments, we tend to love them for their weaknesses and at the heart of Dawn French is a Huge T**t is an enveloping compassion for the human condition, for all the things we get wrong. ‘This new show is all about the fact that we are all t**ts sometimes,’ says Michael, ‘so can we please, a) own up to it, and b) even celebrate it and not make it a big deal, and by owning up to it make the world a slightly better place?’
The show is like being at a dinner party with a bunch of mates all collapsing with laughter as the hostess, a woman of stature and some achievement, reveals her true inglorious self. There is the story of how Dawn fell in love with an actor for 24 hours, a story that will chime with any of us who have experienced blinding, delusional infatuation for someone entirely unsuitable. Which of us hasn’t looked back at a passion and mused, “What was I thinking?!”
As a nation we love silliness and Dawn mines that peculiarly British, almost patriotic appetite for the totally daft in just the same way her idol, Eric Morecombe used to. It stems from a practically child-like state of being completely unguarded and as audiences we can’t get enough. Dawn French is a Huge T**t is like being let into a huge secret, seeing behind the scenes rather than the polished product. Dawn has experienced buttock-clenching humiliation in the company of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Elton and countless royals. It is gossiping around the water cooler at its most delicious.
Among the funny stories are more serious moments from Dawn’s career and one which audiences will relate to is that curious phenomenon where suddenly, without notice, a part of our life just dies.
She tells the story: ‘I was filming at the BBC and there was one sketch that went a bit wrong. Lots of the choices were wrong but still, to this day, I don’t know what happened in my head but as I got in my car that night to drive home, I decided I could no longer do comedy sketches.
‘I had to call Jen (Jennifer Saunders, Dawn’s long-term comedy partner) and say, “I can’t do it anymore, I’m out of love with it. It was nobody’s fault, but there was something that went wrong, and I never wanted to experience that again.”
It takes courage to call time on such a hugely successful and popular formula as French and Saunders, but the decision turned out to be the right one for Dawn. She has gone on to enjoy success as an actress and four-time novelist as well as revelling in the domesticity of her life in Cornwall with her second husband, Mark.
Michael Grandage has no doubt that Dawn’s new show is a timely reckoner. ‘The world is in a bit more of a mess than it’s ever been. We’re very vulnerable after Covid and not quite sure of anything anymore. This knocked everybody for six and has created an existential debate at least, if not a crisis and at the heart of it is “Who are we?” I think this new show goes to the very centre of that.’ Examining life’s more serious issues through comedy is not new, but Dawn adds a delightful twist by making herself the butt of the jokes.
Rolling in the aisles aside, there is a very serious side to Dawn French; a practical, sturdy sensibility which belies her comic work. She is serious about family, about friendship, about motherhood, about the things that actually matter most to all of us. And we sense this in her.
‘As I get older, I’m much more introspective. It doesn’t mean you lose the fun and froth – I love silliness – but I also don’t want to be pointless. I honestly can’t be fussed to get in the car and trail all around the country if I can’t say something I really mean. But equally I don’t want to be worthy, so it’s striking the balance between laughter and sincerity. And that is where Michael Grandage is so important to the process. I need Michael to challenge me.
‘My life now is about being true to myself and living in my own skin. I’m 64 now and I know myself. For the most part I like myself and I can do this tour at this stage of my career because I’m very happy to tell you all these idiotic things that I’ve thought and done. This show is about mistakes and how you learn from them. How you process the humiliation of those moments and admit your mistakes. I’d go further and say enjoy them and ultimately wear them as your badges instead of hiding them.’
Dawn’s lack of starriness was informed in no small part by her down-to-earth upbringing. She has spoken in the past of how she carries her late parents inside her and listens to their voices. ‘You don’t forget what you’ve been taught and who you are. My brother for example, is very loving and supportive but he’s not at all showbiz and he’s very levelling and wouldn’t stand for any pretentious nonsense from me and nor would my parents. If ever any of that puffed up showbizzy stuff starts happening I feel revolted because I hear those voices.’
If Dawn was blessed with a family that kept her feet on the ground, she now extends the favour to us and invites us to stop taking ourselves so seriously. To own our own flaws and forgive ourselves. She reminds us of just what is at stake if we don’t: ‘Human frailty and the understanding of our shortcomings, because in our shortcomings are all our delights.’
Dawn French is a Huge T**t is touring across the UK from September 7 until November 26.