Les Dawson: Flying High

Tim Whitnall
So Comedy & Broken Robot Productions
Grand Theatre, Lancaster

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Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson Credit: Steve Ullathorne

A homage to one of Lancashire’s several kings of comedy started its national tour in the heart of the county.

So it also helped that a ‘home crowd’ kept Flying High aloft when opening night gremlins in the second act threatened to bring it crashing to earth.

It was a testament not only to the deep regard still felt for Les Dawson, but also the cool professionalism of master impressionist Jon Culshaw who calmly veered off script to introduce appearances from Ronnie Corbett, Bruce Forsyth, Jeremy Clarkson Alan Bennett, even Dr Who, while a technical crew battled with the show’s computer-driven backdrop. Even Huw Edwards added reverential commentary as the curtain came halfway down on the stage chaos!

The play is a cleverly-constructed life story that has been honed at the Edinburgh Festival and is now fleshed out to a two-hour performance. It’s written, with affection but also dark authenticity, by Tim Whitnall, and directed by Bob Golding.

The latter appeared as Eric Morecambe, also in Lancaster, a decade ago and this production has much of the same style.

As Dawson, Culshaw inhabits not only the gravelly voice, but dressed in on-stage tuxedo, captures all the gurning mannerisms and moments of self mockery.

The staging uses a huge TV backdrop to recreate flashbacks to the comedian’s career which also enables Culshaw to become both Cissie & Ada in those celebrated sketches of the Lancashire gossips. Likewise the show’s target audience will have no issue remembering the likes of Alan Whicker, Hughie Green and even Max Wall in ‘walk-on’ appearances.

It’s when Billy Connolly turns up that the show becomes inadvertent anarchy! The Big Yin will be sorry he missed it...

Even before then, ‘laugh-a-minute’ does not begin to describe the speed of Culshaw’s delivery of Dawson’s wry drollery. Indeed there are moments when both performer and audience might welcome a pause in the speed of it all.

The first act details Les’s upbringing and early life in the slums of Manchester’s Collyhurst and his marriage to first wife Meg. Her ‘off-stage’ voice coaxes him on through the tribulations of his career trajectory. The second act dips into the darker ups and downs of eventual success, the self-doubt and self-medication, through alcohol.

Above all, as ‘Les’ transcribes his memoirs into a tape recorder, sitting aboard a transatlantic Concorde flight, there emerges an often-overlooked deeper intellect to his tomfoolery. Les Dawson emerges as yet another clown who wanted to be taken seriously.

Even before this play reaches his adopted home town of Lytham St Annes, at the end of its tour, it will be living up to its name, and its namesake.

Reviewer: David Upton