What works in Dennis’s favour is that he was at once part of that Opportunity Knocks-style circuit of the past which the play remembers so fondly, and is yet still with his best years far from behind him, so he can draw on the best experiences of both. It’s not always encouraging to see him take these kind of ‘washed up funnyman’ roles when people tend to confuse fantasy and reality so much, but Jigsy is something else entirely.
Firstly, it’s a physical transformation. From the moment he steps through the spangly stage curtain into the dressing room space, Dennis is almost unrecognisable, complete with full paunch, ruddy complexion, characteristic wheeze, rough-as-sandpaper voice and boozy stagger. For pretty much the entire 80 minute show, he is, completely and utterly Jigsy, and Jigsy is a fully realised fictional character, with no thinly-veiled reference to the ‘Poor Les of Extras’ fame.
Staveacre’s script goes down a treat with the Liverpool audience, as could be expected. It’s full of light and shade — old-school gags, tributes to some real-life comedians, and gossip about others, interspersed with a little all-our-yesterdays city history (with a long segment describing the Thetis disaster, for example). Jigsy has come off stage from a set at a Fazakerley bingo hall, and, mooching around a dressing room full of boxes of crisps and framed pictures of showbiz types, chats away to the audience about life as a comedian and the things he has learned along the way. He impersonates his peers — Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd, Bernard Manning, Tommy Ball — with ease.
As you’d hope, the show is full of (sometimes unexpected) laugh-out-loud moments, from the crap jokes and impressions to the pathos and the bitching about Ken Dodd. The Liverpool angle is only so slightly overegged, yet Dennis turns out to be such an accomplished storyteller he gets away with it. There’s times you feel there might only be the pair of you in the whole place; and others where it feels right to be part of the larger audience that Jigsy so desperately craves.
Jigsy is a captivating and entertaining piece of theatre, and the newly refurbed Royal Court has to be the perfect place to catch it.