Dawn French: Thirty Million Minutes (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, June 28th)

Hankies should be given out with each ticket for Dawn French’s first ever solo tour, Thirty Million Minutes. When you are not crying with laughter your eyes might just be turning moist at some of the memories shared of family joys and sorrows.

We might have expected to find, in the words of the Vicar of Dibley herself, “a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom” but in fact we get an up close and personal insight into the life of one of our best-loved comic actresses.

Thirty Million Minutes (so called because Dawn is aged 56, which roughly amounts to 30 million minutes) is a brilliantly conceived and executed two-hour show, a sort of This Is Your Life minus celebrity guests, with just the subject taking centre stage to reminisce.

This is French with and without tears, a larger than life personality prepared to expose herself bravely, never afraid to find silver linings in even the cloudiest skies. But it’s never as naff and predictable as “finding comedy in tragedy” or stumbling upon the tears of a clown. While French herself has written the show and is clearly in a strong enough place to be able to handle the raw honesty it demands, one suspects that the quality direction of Michael Grandage has drawn still more emotional depths from the performer.

Just as the audience recovers from chuckling over the stories of her ‘good and evil’ grannies, her childhood meeting with the Queen Mother, and the fact that Dawn gives her body parts nicknames (her ample breasts are called Ant and Dec for example), they are silenced by her account of her father’s suicide when she was just 19 or her fury at misquotes and invention by the media and unauthorised biographers.

Never for a moment do the anecdotes come across as scripted monologue which has been shared several times already on the tour (and will continue to be spoken at venues around the country until the end of November). Instead Dawn French comes across as sincere and likeable in a show that manages to be enthralling human drama rather than dreary lecture.   

This isn’t stand-up comedy, but a personal reflection by Dawn French on the funny side of her life; not a maudlin soliloquy but a genuine and open look back at some of the highlights, both amusing and moving. It is a riveting, hilarious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and unmissable night at the theatre.