French And Saunders: Still Alive

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

You don’t survive 30 years in comedy without building a powerful rapport with your fans. Ever since French and Saunders first trod the boards of the Comedy Store and Comic Strip at the dawn of alternative comedy, they have been strengthening their personas that audiences – or at least THEIR audiences – have come to love.

It means that their Still Alive tour is less of a comedy show, and more an act of worship. That it has been billed as their final hoorah as a double-act only heightens the almost tangible adoration flooding towards the stage.

Dawn and Jennifer respond in kind, demonstrating the irresistible strength of personality that got them where they are today. The chemistry is obvious and the fruity bickering between them is sparky, playful and instinctive. They may be pushing 50, but they haven’t grown up one bit, with childish spats and boastful ‘my career’s bigger than your career’ oneupmanship – or should that be oneupwomanship - defining their on-stage banter.

This playfulness, and their sizeable charisma as performers bring the theatre alight when they’re bantering between ‘themselves’. But there is a but – and a big one, too. And that is the fact that most their sketches are, well, a bit rubbish.

Obviously in many cases, that’s the point: that Jennifer lacks the grace and suppleness to pull off a Madonna dance number, or that Dawn is prone to flamboyant overacting. Their cheery tongue-in-cheek amateurishness remains, even with ticket prices north of £30 each pop. That they bring their own personalities to many of the characters they play means proceedings are often propped up by the duo’s sheer presence – rather than because the writing’s actually funny.

It means that when they attempt more traditional skits, requiring them to stay roughly in character, things can fall flat. These scenes tend to be overlong and drift too much around the central jokes, which are often of a standard that would embarrass a failed BBC Three sketch show, let along the self-anointed queens of comedy.

A scene about two posh public schoolgirls, abandoned by selfish socialite parents in some Rodean-style boarding school is poignant buy forgets the gags; two country bumpkins in the dock appears to rely only on the imagined inherent hilarity of a West Country accent for effect; and a Strictly Come Dancing spoof seems to have little to recommend it but topicality. Sometimes when they get hold of a good idea – such as the concept of the missing ‘fourth wall’ they cannot hide behind on stage – they don’t quite seem to know what to do with it.

After three decades, French and Saunders still can’t get out of many scenes, so have to conclude them by a sudden blackout. Indeed the entire first half ends in similarly abrupt fashion, to the bemusement of the audience.

On the other hand, it’s good to see again both their disgusting, lascivious pub blokes, and the inspired mother-daughter role-reversal sketch that spawned AbFab. Plus the teenagers discussing sex with authority – but no knowledge – is a delight. But is it worrying that the funniest sketch of the night is the first they ever wrote together, all those years ago?

The show’s a mixture of old and new, but the limitations of a theatre show no doubt restricted what items they could choose from their back catalogue, with their defining movie spoofs too intricate for anything but the screen. Some sketches are pre-filmed and shown in giant projection to punctuate the live action – but they seem sterile compared to the life Dawn and Jen exude when they’re on stage.

Whatever happens, we can’t take them too seriously, as they never take themselves too seriously – making them near critic-proof. ‘Yet again, you’ve made a complete tit of yourself,’ Dawn admonishes Jen at one point. It’s what they’ve been doing all their professional life.

Their set-piece finale exploits this skilfully, their supposed rivalry blown up into an epic, larger-than-life conflict, with more than a touch of vogueish, Booshesque surrealism for extra stupidity. It’s the sort of grand gesture you’ll remember – as is the pre-encore Abba tune they belt out to satisfy the Mamma Mia overlap audience.

They make some attempts to undermine it, but are too aware that it’s showmanship in the age-old tradition of leaving ‘em on a song to totally sabotage the number. After all, such an upbeat note perfectly suits the congratulatory tone of the entire evening, and that – more than whether individual sketches were all that funny or not – is the point of this celebration.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Manchester, March 6, 2008

Review date: 1 Mar 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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