Last week, it was a pleasurable surprise to hear Dawn French announce her first solo tour. Since she and erstwhile comedy partner Jennifer Saunders did their last gigs together in 2008, French has successfully focused on writing books and gave no hint that she had ambitions to start performing solo at the age of 56.
She describes the show, 30 Million Minutes, which begins in June, as “somewhere between a monologue, a play and an autobiographical slide show with a few funnies thrown in” and she is working with director Michael Grandage, which augurs well. But can it live up to her previous work? Comics who have moved from double to solo acts have often experienced mixed fortunes.
After decades together, a comedy partner becomes almost a physical extension of you; Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, aka Ant and Dec, say that even in social gatherings they find themselves standing in the same positions (face-on, Ant on the left, Dec on the right). Duos can also achieve a strong emotional bond, extemporising easily because they intuitively know what their partner is thinking – which can lead to some awesome riffed comedy.
Performing without your other half, then, is like going on stage naked, particularly if the break has been imposed suddenly by illness – as with Les Dennis and Ernie Wise, both of whose partners (Dustin Gee and Eric Morecambe, respectively) died of heart attacks at the height of their fame.
Happily, this doesn’t apply to French (pictured). But appearing solo for the first time means, at the very least, an adjustment of stage geometry. Sue Perkins, who made her name with Mel Giedroyc, said that when she did solo stand-up in 2005 (before teaming up again with Giedroyc to present The Great British Bake Off) she used only half the stage. “It’s as if there’s a space that isn’t my territory,” she said at the time.
However, lots of comics have made the transition from double to single with acclaim – among them Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Robert Newman and Frank Skinner – and have found their own comedic voices. And last year, David Baddiel – former partner of both Newman and Skinner – performed a corker of a show with Fame: Not The Musical, a thoughtful and hilarious critique of celebrity.
French has said that she’s going back on the road because she misses the sound of laughter. I can’t wait to join in.