It's French and Saunders' first live tour in ten years. In the interim decade they have become television stars; we know them as images on the screen rather than three-dimensional figures. It was a sharp, clever idea, then, to make huge video projections on the back wall a major part of the show – not just video segments in their own right, but routines which see the pair onstage interacting with the figures on screen in detailed and complex ways. A sharp, clever idea, but one which backfires in a big way.
Companies such as La Cubana from Catalonia and Britain's Forkbeard Fantasy have made great play of integrating film and stage performance, with performers seeming to step "into" and "out of" the film and sometimes even disappearing physically through the screen. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders have taken these ideas on board and used them to mock and subvert their own status as tele-comedians. In one routine, as a couple of extras in Casualty, they keep poking their heads through curtains at one side of the stage, to appear "on camera" on the rear wall interacting with Clive Mantle and Sinead Cusack; in another, Saunders on screen spies French upstaging her on stage (so to speak), rushes off screen and onto the stage to upbraid her partner. It's smart work, and under the direction of Simon McBurney it is executed with precision, although it hardly compares with the companies mentioned above; I have seen stage/video interaction every bit as complex as this in small venues on the Edinburgh Fringe.
Unfortunately, too, the impression it conveys is the opposite of that apparently intended. Sometimes straight video clips are screened, including a blatant "Dawn French's greatest over-the-top moments" compilation. Even when the flesh-and-blood comediennes are interacting with themselves and each other on screen, they are not just visually but conceptually dwarfed by their video selves. The vision is not of the pair being playful with the TV versions of themselves, but of them being imprisoned, unable to escape these huge, looming images. Since the actual subjects dealt with are no different from those in their television routines (if anything, even safer – motorised scooters, home shopping channels and Big Brother are fish-in-a-barrel targets), the overall effect is just of the French & Saunders show on a bigger box (and the Apollo Hammersmith is a very big box), with some tiny figures in front of the screen. It almost seems incidental to note that if, like me, you've never found them very funny together, this will do nothing to convert you. The opening sketch – in which an ordinary TV is wheeled onstage to show the two of them announcing, "We are live!", proves horribly prophetic – they're really not live at all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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