Tonight I had the pleasure of watching the latest offering from Fylde playwright David Slattery. Dan Leno: A Royal Jester tells the story of the music hall entertainer. The man who created so many of the comedy tropes we have enjoyed over the years, not only in pantomime, where he practically redefined the part of the Dame, but also comedy in general. The likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel sited Dan as a favourite performer.
I don’t want to say too much about how the story unfolds, only that Slattery’s ability as a writer really shines here. He has found a way of telling historial exposition while keeping everything in a small space. The story moves along in such a way as to show off the wonderful style and material of Leno’s performances, while in the same moment the heartbreak and tragedy of this tortured genius.
David also directs the play, which is told across two parts with an interval. He uses a clever mechanism of show cards, brought by each actor in the old music hall tradition, to indicate the start of each scene. He kept the flow moving and expanded each scene at a pace that was easy for the audience to follow. At no point did you even stop and think, “What just happened there?” even though the content could have easily left you baffled had it been handled differently.
Other things of note, the costumes, as advised by Gillian Wood, were on the money. Graham Greenwood’s set design was efficient and extremely well constructed, elevating the production value. Another thing that pushed the production up a level was the use of sound. Crowd effects, weather, music, all played a vital part in conjuring up the world beyond the sides of the stage. I particularly liked the snare roll and cymbal which was used to great effect when the show cards came out. A short burst Da Dum Tish was also employed to exaggerate a punch line, or to punctuate a serious point. I don’t think I have ever heard such a well known comedy sound used so ironically before. Credit to David Brown for the sound design.
The other thing of note is the small but wonderfully positioned dance numbers choreographed by Debra Smyth. I’m not talking full on Bollywood numbers. These were wonderful little numbers that added more flavour of the musical hall. Jordan Kennedy who played Dan’s brother Henry Galvin particularly impressed me with his Black Sheep number.
This brings me onto the performances and yet again David Slattery has assembled a cracking cast. I just mentioned Jordan Kennedy, his portrait of Henry was suitable dark. He had the added trouble of playing the real living brother, and a version that only appeared in Dan Leno’s mind. Louise Steggals put in a strong performance as Nurse Kelly. She brought the feeling of someone who had been looking after this patient for a while and had the authority that nurses had back in the days before the NHS.
Andy Cooke, playing both Dan Leno’s physician Doctor Savage and Henry Beebohm Tree, a theatre producer know for putting on Shakespeare plays, had very good stage presences. I felt his strongest performance was as the Doctor, coming across as a man of medicine and a fan of Leno’s.
Dan’s wife, Lydia Leno, was brought to life by Nicole Violet. Her portrait of a woman who was so devoted and in love with this troubled man was excellent. I have to give a special mention to one moment. There is a scene where she has to convey being upset. Nicole took centre stage, with no one around her, and cried while singing. The feeling of emotion she extended from the stage was extraordinary. I myself was moved to the moistening of the eye.
But then there is the big question. Anyone who has seen Steve Royle in the Blackpool Pantomime, or doing his normal act will know that the comedy elements would not be an issue, and they weren’t. His timing was impeccable, the moments where he need to get a response from the audience he got it, and the moments that required a laugh, got the laugh without fishing for it. All this was without a doubt. No, the big question was, could he transition into the moments that needed a serious face?
The answer is a big yes. In fact I would say Oh Yes! And then some. Steve Royle’s performance was extraordinary. His command of the character was truly mesmerising. Manic and happy one minute, frustrated and angry the next. All without going over the top, or being too understated. There is a moment when he’s playing Mrs Kelly, one of Dan’s famous characters, when Steve has to move from being this overt music hall comedian to a very depressed and lonely individual. The way the darkness descends upon him was, to be quite frank, outstanding. It took the whole production from being an amazing play, to an utter triumph, and I don’t say that lightly.
The play ran for the duration of Lytham Festival, 18th – 22nd July 2018
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