Assembly George Square (Gordon Aikman Theatre), Edinburgh
For many in the auditorium, this show is a trip down memory lane. For me, it’s more of an introduction. It’s not that I’m too young to remember Les Dawson – he was on TV when I was a child – but we never watched his show at home, although I saw bits of it at my grandparents’ house, or with my friends. As I walk along the Meadows, on my way to George Square, I try to recall what I know of him. There isn’t much: I’m stuck at gurning, gruff voice, fake bosoms and “my mother-in-law”.
No matter. Let’s see what light the inimitable (ha!) Jon Culshaw can shed on a man who was, for decades, a staple of popular entertainment.
This 480-seater theatre is packed. There’s clearly a lot of lingering affection for Dawson – and a lot of faith in Culshaw to deliver. The set looks promising: it’s lavish by Fringe standards, dominated by a large screen, designed to look like a 1980s TV. There’s also a piano (or, at least, the back of one; I can’t see from where I’m sitting if it’s real), and an aeroplane seat, from where much of the material is recounted.
The premise is simple: Dawson is on Concorde, flying to Manhattan to perform at a private party for a rich ex-pat from Leeds. He has agreed to write an autobiography and, until it’s done, Dawson can’t focus on the novel he really wants to write. So he decides to put his time in the air to good use, recounting the story of his life, from the terraced streets of Collyhurst to the Royal Variety Performance.
Culshaw’s affection for Dawson is evident in his performance, which focuses on the comic’s warmth and charm, as well as his natural humour. I hadn’t realised that Dawson harboured literary ambitions, but it makes sense: the jokes, I see now, are often lyrical flights of fancy, undercut by a crude punchline. He uses language in a way that shows he loves it, playing with words, creating startlingly beautiful images. It’s fascinating to see this burgeoning in his youth, as Culshaw shows us a young wannabe poet pushed into boxing by a well-meaning uncle who doesn’t understand. Who knew that Dawson was the Billy Elliot of his day?
I like Tim Whitnall’s script, with its fourth-wall breaking acknowledgement of theatricality, as Culshaw speaks from the screen in a range of guises: as John Humphreys, for example, or as Dawson’s cartoon ‘gossipy-women’ creations, Ada and Cissie. “You’re a narrative device,” Dawson tells Humphreys, “helping to set the time and place.”
This is more than just a good impression, although it’s certainly that too. Although this piece is basically a monologue, director Bob Golding ensures it never feels static, and the audience is audibly appreciative. I leave feeling fonder of Dawson than I ever expected to.