Offended that the director would think her such a natural fit for the role of a faded movie star, the faded movie star Mae West famously turned down the role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; a role that Gloria Swanson ended up inhabiting so thrillingly precisely due to the ironic self-reflexivity of the casting.
The comparison to Jigsy isn’t a direct one; the eponymous, has-been comic of Tony Staveacre’s play is much further over the hill than Les Dennis, who portrays him. But it would be naïve to deny the power that Hannah Chissick’s production derives from the involvement of a man who has had his share of personal and professional tribulations publicly aired over the course of his career. Jigsy’s resilience – his commitment to that most introvertedly extroverted of jobs in the face of his looming irrelevance, broken marriage and apparent drink problem – is Dennis’ resilience; it must take some constitution to stomach a national tour of High School Musical 2. This role, then, is a gratifying pay-off for keeping on keeping on.
In the backroom of a Liverpool working men’s club where Jigsy has just finished his set, we are about to be treated to a very different kind of routine. This is Staveacre’s real coup; though few of the laughs in the ‘unashamed comedy anorak’s’ script are entirely his own, the script generously accommodates the presence of an audience rather than wallowing in self-satisfaction and vanishing up its own behind. There’s never any doubt about the fact that we are, somehow, present in the room, watching a performance which consciously moulds itself around our laughter, our silences, our pitying stares. Jigsy’s own anecdotes, of near-misses on television contests The Comedians and Opportunity Knocks, and the buzz of reaching ale-fuelled onstage perfection, are interspersed with on-the-nose recreations of the work of his club circuit forbearers to create a warts-and-all tribute to stand-up in the image of the form it celebrates.
Where Staveacre begins to lose ground is in pushing his – let’s face it, not staggeringly fresh – idea of laughter and misery being two sides of the same coin far too heavily as the evening progresses, where he would have been wiser to let it speak for itself. Consequentially he often falls short of insight and gets overwrought nostalgia instead, which Chissick can do little to marshal and which threatens to tarnish the integrity of Jigsy as a character; few of the many variants on the line ‘comedy is hard because life is hard’ feel entirely natural coming out of Dennis’ mouth.
But he really is good. The thinning hair, rumpled dress shirt and well-used dickey ensure that he looks the part. And then there are the emotional depths hinted at, beneath the chipper exterior, which Jigsy is visibly reluctant to divulge in the presence of this audience as much as any other, even if we won’t heckle.
On Harriet de Winton’s evocative set, photographs of stand-up legends hang from the back wall – a comic catalogue running from Cannon and Ball to Ken Dodd. A photograph of Jigsy is conspicuously absent, and if the few minutes of his material we catch a glimpse of are anything to go by, it’s not so hard to see why. We have Staveacre to thank for taking a snapshot of the man behind the tough smile; he’s an altogether more compelling character indeed.
Jigsy is playing at the Tabacco Factory Theatre, Bristol, until 8 September. For more information, see the theatre’s website.