(seen at the afternoon performance on 26th June 2022)
An occasional table with two glasses of water and some prompt notes on it. Two fairly comfortable chairs beside it, angled to face the audience. A carpet in front. Some portable theatre lights around, with a little smoke machine and some more sophisticated spotlights hidden from view.
Not a lot to create theatrical magic – unless the magician is Dame Judi Dench CH (Companion of Honour and proud of her “ch”). With gentle prompts (it’s why he has the notes) from television personality and all-round entertainer Gyles Brandreth, two enthralling hours pass in a flash.
Years and names fly by at breathless speed. Long-forgotten productions surface vividly enough that we believe we were there, even if they took place before we were even born.
Anecdotes about fellow actors, producers, even family members are recounted. Never cruelly, though the odd ‘clash of personalities’ is not underplayed. Mostly, the camaraderie of the profession and the quickness of wit all actors must possess to play their roles and deal with the unexpected are the keys to much hilarity.
The show is seemingly almost unscripted. Organised into a first half opening with a little autobiography before moving on to the phenomenal stage career, and a second more about films and television, a few “set pieces” and favourite tales pass from one show date to the next. The rest seems free-wheeling, conversation going where memory allows so that laughter can follow.
The monkey will give nothing away, save to note that Sonnet CXVI is one of the most breath-taking moments of theatre it has ever experienced. Those few lines as spoken summed up just how much it takes to become not just an actor but one at the very, very pinnacle of the profession. Years of practice, but equal amounts of natural ability and dedication.
Brandreth is a genial host, a few well-timed moments of his own allowing the Dame a little chance to catch her breath and also assisting with the flow of the show itself – as well as providing a ring when required. The monkey hopes to see Brandreth’s solo evening show at some point on the strength of this.
Still, this afternoon belongs to the irreplaceable Dame Judi Dench. A personal recollection, an audience revelation, and a celebration for all lucky enough to be present.
5 stars, standing ovation.