When Dawn French takes to the stage for the first time on her one-woman tour, she will be stepping into the unknown. One of this country’s most famous comedians, she has toured with her friend and comedy partner, Jennifer Saunders, and starred in a one-woman play, but this is different. And she’s apprehensive.
The tour is nationwide and will take in over 60 gigs in two stages.
Talk of it both excites and seems to terrify her. “I’ve just eaten a little bit of the cushion with my bottom thinking about it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to [do it] and I think I’ve dodged it a bit. Because I’m aware that it’s a risk.”
Her show will be directed by Michael Grandage. She was desperate to work with the man who ran the Donmar Warehouse for a decade until 2012.
“I could have asked Fatty Saunders, but I thought, ‘I’m actually going to ask a proper grown-up theatre person’,” she says.
Eighteen months have passed since she first approached him, but she kept taking other jobs – a sign of her being “scared” – including a role as a judge on Australia’s Got Talent.
Her touring show is called 30 Million Minutes - because that’s roughly how long she’s been alive – but French still isn’t sure what it is: “It’s not a stand-up show. It’s not a play. I guess it is a monologue because it’s just me talking.
“It’s a slide show to an extent. But not just a slide show. It’s not like your awful, most-feared auntie who’s just come back from Egypt where you have to sit and watch everything.
“It’s quite autobiographical, so I show you the people that have made me, so to speak. There’s quite a lot about my mum and dad.”
French was born in Holyhead, Wales, in 1957 where her father was stationed with the RAF. But she spent much of her childhood in Cornwall and went to boarding school in Devon.
At home, French was a performer and her dad was too.
“He would tease me to discipline me,” she said. “Very loving teasing. Lots of things were dealt with at that sophisticated level of lots of fun.”
French’s father gave her confidence and she remembers a “key moment” when she was leaving for a party. “I’ve always been a big girl and shouldn’t really have been wearing hot pants,” she says. Her father, though, was supportive.
“He told me I was completely beautiful and how amazing I looked in them and that I would get loads of attention. So my dad gave me a sort of telling off that was about totally infusing me with confidence and I went on cloud nine to this party and I’ve actually never left that party. It was armour.”
When she was 18, French’s father, Denys, killed himself. Growing up, she and her brother had been shielded from his depression.
It was, she says, “just like a bomb went off in our family. My mum, of course, would have known there was danger. He’d lived his whole life with [it but] this was in a time when you didn’t say you had a mental illness if you were the head of a family.
“I still have sadness about it. Massive sadness. And I think it’s been a centre point of my life what happened with my dad.”
Soon after her father’s suicide, French started at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London to do a teaching course.
There she met Jennifer Saunders, with whom she would form a hugely successful comedy double act.
The pair began to make names for themselves on the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s and their long-running TV show, French and Saunders, was launched in 1987.
Roles on television – including the lead part in highly successful The Vicar of Dibley – and in the theatre have followed.
Now, with an autobiography and two novels also to her name, she is about to test herself again.
Dawn French’s 30 Million Minutes UK tour will appear at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre on Wednesday, June 11 at 8pm and tickets are priced from £35.
To book, contact the Box Office on Northampton 624811.