He may have died in 1904 in a mental asylum at 43, but the Victorian music-hall comedian and pantomime dame, Dan Leno, lives on in an extraordinary travelling production about his life. It has often been lamented that no film of Leno’s acts were made, so that a sense of what allegedly made him ‘the funniest man on earth’ can only now be imagined from written reports and a few crackling recordings. In Tony Lidington’s extraordinary performance as Leno in Dan Leno: The King’s Jester, however, one finds the next-closest thing.
Although he was the most highly-paid musical-hall performer of his generation, achieving celebrity at the same time that the London halls themselves reached the peak of their acclaim, Leno was a vulnerable and ultimately broken-down man. He came to success only after grinding years as a child performer and competitive clog-dancer on the gritty Victorian travelling-show circuit, with a drunken and probably violent father (and later, stepfather) blighting his early life. Leno was also a committed unionist who atttempted to take on the fat cats of the entertainment industry by setting up rival music halls of his own. They crushed the endeavour as ruthlessly as they exploited their performers in the years just before Leno’s breakdown.
No doubt in part because of these things, there was always something troubled and painful about Leno’s acts, infusing even the brightest of his comic routines. This observation was often made by those who attended his shows, and contributed to the compelling nature of his persona on stage.
This mix of melancholia and hilarity is also what makes Lidington’s performance so arresting. During Dan Leno, he performs a goodly number of the man’s most famous routines (‘Queen of My Heart’, ‘The Shopwalker’, a set-piece from one of his dame performances, and ‘The Hard-Boiled Egg and the Wasp’ among them). In each case, the acts are rendered as emotionally fraught, simultaneously funny and sad. They are also interspersed with a narrative about Leno’s life in a beautiful, eloquent, and tautly structured script which Lidington wrote himself on the basis of careful research.
Dan Leno: The King’s Jester is a collaboration between the Georgian Theatre Royal (Richmond) and Lidington’s own company, Promenade Productions. It isn’t at all a slick show – it’s built to be shown in anything from large halls to smallish rooms, with a basic-looking though cleverly-designed pack-away set. I saw it during a theatre-history conference at the University of Exeter last week; it is now in North Yorkshire and will continue touring until late May (see the tour schedule here).
Still, slick would be all wrong for this glimpse into Leno’s difficult and arguably glorious life. And given his origins as an itinerant performer, its own character as a travelling show is certainly apt. If you’re interested in the music hall or the history of stand-up comedy, and if you can see Dan Leno before it ends in late May, I really think you must.
(NB the above image comes from this web-page about Leno, and also appears in the V&A Museum’s theatre collections. Now I wonder where Charlie Chaplin got his sartorial sense from?)