United Kingdom Just Jim Dale: Jim Dale accompanied by Mark York (piano). Vaudeville Theatre, London, 28.5.2015. (JPr)
Richard Maltby Jr – Director
Aaron Gandy – Musical Director, Musical Arrangements, Associate Director
Mark York – Pianist, Musical Arrangements
Anna Louizos – Set Designer
Nick Richings – Lighting Designer
John Leonard – Sound Designer
In January 1965 Jim Dale opened in the short-lived musical ‘The Wayward Way’ and now a little over 50 years later he was back in his infectiously entertaining and uplifting one-man show Just Jim Dale. In a couple of hours – full of just enough self-deprecation for it not to be just an evening of ‘see how good I am’ – Jim Dale, now 79, gives us a potted autobiographical look back at his long career on both sides of the Atlantic. In a Q&A in the programme he responds to being asked why he wrote the show by saying ‘I wanted to put into words how laughter changed a young boy’s life. From class clown to Music Hall stand-up comic, on to Shakespeare then the Carry On films. I wanted to explain and show how a passion for laughter as a means of connecting me to an audience has played such an important role in my career.’
That his roots are indeed that of a music hall song and dance man are clear from the moment Jim Dale comes into the spotlight. As we race through his career with jokes, songs, monologues and anecdotes he described as ‘almost the true story’ there is the impression that he is not someone who can keep still for very long and is always seeking a new challenge. It was extremely entertaining when he performed a vignette of how as the narrator of the Harry Potter books for the American market he had to sit stock-still in the confines of a tiny recording booth to give voice to the many characters. It involved considerable contortions to read the script and face the microphone but more significantly he could never stop his legs and hands from moving nervously or restlessly.
Jim Dale seems to have lost little of that energy over the decades that has seen him propelled him from Rothwell in Northamptonshire (‘the dead, dead, dead centre of England’) to the music hall circuit, which he conquered when he was still a teenager as ‘The Laff Smith’ (Smith being his real name), and from there to the West End in the 1960s, and eventually to Broadway in the 1970s and 80s. On stage he is constantly on the move – all rubbery legs and fluttering hands – and also his expressive face crinkles and creases as relives when he was a small child, a teenager and himself as the much younger man. It is my opinion that age is just a number and there are many people such as Jim Dale (and the remarkable 85-year-old Clint Eastwood is another) who confirm my belief in this. Throughout, he speaks, sings and moves with the vibrancy of a man merely half his age, and his love of the spotlight radiated a warmth that spread throughout the Vaudeville Theatre.
Jim Dale did tell some hoary jokes at times but you find yourself smiling nonetheless. He began with lines from an old music hall song:
‘Twas an evening in October, I’ll confess I wasn’t sober,
I was carting home a load with manly pride,
When my feet began to stutter and I fell into the gutter,
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.
Then I lay there in the gutter and my heart was all a-flutter,
Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:
“You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,”
Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.
He knew the stage was where he wanted to be from an early age when his father took him to his first West End musical, Me and My Girl and after he heard all the laughter and applause for the comic, Lupino Lane, who stunned the audience with a tumble into the orchestra pit, he realised that he wanted some of that for himself. He asked his father what he would have to do and his answer was: ‘Learn how to move’. He began ballet classes and later he mastered the art of the pratfall and the rest is theatrical history. In 1987 Jim Dale was on Broadway, playing in that same musical, and by that time, he had established himself as a star of the New York theatre, having won a Tony for his performance in the title role in the musical Barnum, and before that, was acclaimed for his work in an adaptation of Moliere’s Scapino. It was his and Frank Dunlop’s Young Vic production of this that first brought Jim Dale to America in 1974 and he has been based there ever since then.
I cannot explain in words how much fun this old-fashioned show was but other highlights included how as a young dance student he had to perform a pas de deux as a pas de une when his partner missed the bus and did not get to a recital and his traumatic audition for the Carroll Levis musical hall troupe with which he toured England as a teenage comedian. He later toured the same circuit as a pop singer, performing his own songs in the 1960s. It is not that well know that in 1966 he wrote the lyrics for the Oscar-nominated Lynn Redgrave film Georgy Girl which he joyfully performed here. Another surprise for many is that he is responsible too for ‘Dick-A-Dum-Dum’ that he wrote during these early days of rock‘n’roll and is remembered now as a huge hit for the British entertainer Des O’Connor.
In Britain he is affectionately remembered as part of the extended family of familiar names that appeared in the famous Carry On serious of occasionally bawdy parodies which were filled with double-entendres, slapstick and farce. After the interval during a skit on the intrusion of an audience’s mobile phones during theatre performances he ended that if this happened he intended to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and used this as a device to look back on his Carry On years. He especially paid tribute to Kenneth Williams and his nasally impersonation was spot-on; and another co-star, Barbara Windsor – who he had not met for 46 years – was in the audience.
There is a fleeting hint that appreciative he is for the boost to his career that the Carry On films gave him – and how he is aware that they are probably one of the biggest reasons audiences will come and see Just Jim Dale – he is eager to show that he has done so much more than that. He proves – if proof be needed – that he is a natural physical comic and a fine ‘song and dance’ man but he also shows what a talented dramatic actor he is too. In his early days he had worked at the National Theatre with Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice alongside Charles Kay, Ronald Pickup and Derek Jacobi who also were in the audience. He revealed his considerable vocal dexterity when he celebrated Shakespeare in a rapid-fire melange of words and phrases that have originated from the Bard. More significantly, he presented the climax to Noël Coward’s Fumed Oak when a henpecked husband announces to his wife and daughter that he’s finally standing up for himself, moving out and leaving them to it. Later in the show there was the opening to Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (which he appeared in on Broadway opposite Stockard Channing in 1985) where he said he ‘brought music hall into the play before it started’.
Jim Dale’s love of the music halls where he began was a recurring theme and at one point he led a singalong of an old comic song, ‘Turned Up’, about a bridegroom who gets cold feet on his wedding day. Throughout he was given great support by the unobtrusive Mark York at the piano and he also delivered very pleasing renditions of a host of songs he is known for including the title song and ‘The Lambeth Walk’ from Me and My Girl and a trio of melodies from Barnum, including the tongue-twisting ‘Museum Song’ and an incredibly moving ‘The Colours of My Life’ which he dedicated to his current wife of 35 years. In closing – there would be no encore – Jim Dale chose Irving Berlin’s ‘Let Me Sing and I’m Happy’, and adapting it to express his personal credo, that if his jokes can ‘milk a laugh or two, then I’m hap, hap, hap, happy’ the evening ended on an undoubted high and brought the Vaudeville Theatre first-nighters to their feet.
I felt at the end of Just Jim Dale he still had much – much – more to reveal of his real self but this consummate performer should be seen, appreciated and treasured before it is too late since there are not many of his generation of entertainers left. He was not born into show-business but – as he joked himself – he was like a burglar and broke into it and this show – directed with I suspect a light hand from Richard Maltby Jr – perfectly encapsulates what can be achieved with some talent … but mainly just by carrying on!
For more about performances of Just Jim Dale and to book tickets visit http://justjimdale.com/ .