When Dawn French takes to the stage at the Crucible in Sheffield for the first time on her nationwide one-woman tour, she will be stepping into the unknown.
One of this country’s most famous comedians, she has toured with her friend and comedy partner Jennifer Saunders and starred in a one-woman play, but this is different. And she’s apprehensive.
Talk of the tour both excites and seems to terrify her. “I’ve just eaten a little bit of the cushion with my bum thinking about it,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to and I think I’ve dodged it a bit. Because I’m aware that it’s a risk.”
French will be directed by Michael Grandage. She was desperate to work with the man who ran the Donmar Warehouse for a decade until 2012 and before that was artistic director at the Crucible.
“I could have asked Fatty Saunders, but I thought, ‘I’m actually going to ask a proper grown-up theatre person’,” she says. Eighteen months have passed since she first approached him, but she kept taking other jobs – a sign of her being “scared” – including a role as a judge on Australia’s Got Talent.
The new show is called 30 Million Minutes – because that’s roughly how long she’s been alive – but French still isn’t quite sure what it is. Instead, she makes a worried noise. “It’s not a stand-up show. It’s not a play. I guess it is a monologue because it’s just me talking.
“It’s a slide show to an extent. But not JUST a slide show. It’s not like your awful, most feared auntie who’s just come back from Egypt where you have to sit and watch everything.
“It’s quite autobiographical, so I show you the people that have made me, so to speak. There’s quite a lot about my mum and dad.” Her grandmothers will also feature – ‘Good Granny’ and ‘Evil Granny’.
At home, French was a performer and her dad was too. “He would tease me to discipline me. Very loving teasing. Lots of things were dealt with at that quite sophisticated level of lots of fun.”
French’s father gave her confidence and she remembers a “key moment” when she was leaving for a party. “I’ve always been a big girl and shouldn’t really have been wearing hot pants,” she says.
Her father, though, was supportive. “He told me I was completely beautiful and how amazing I looked in them and that I would get loads of attention.
“So my dad gave me a sort of telling off that was about totally infusing me with confidence and I went on cloud nine to this party and I’ve actually never left that party. It was armour.”
When she was just 18, French’s father Denys killed himself. Growing up, she and her brother had been shielded from his depression.
It was, she says, “just like a bomb went off in our family. My mum of course would have known there was danger.
“He’d lived his whole life with it but this was in a time when you didn’t say you had mental illness if you were the head of a family.
“I still have sadness about it. Massive sadness. And I think it’s been a centre point of my life what happened with my dad.”
Soon after her father’s suicide, French started at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London to do a teaching course. There she met Jennifer Saunders.
The pair began to make names for themselves on the alternative comedy scene in the 1980s and their long-running TV show, French and Saunders, launched in 1987.
Roles on television – including the lead part in the Vicar of Dibley – and in the theatre have followed.
Now, with an autobiography and two novels also to her name, she is about to test herself again.
French will, she assures me, be more revealing in her show than she has been before. But she’s not entirely easy with it being all about her. “It’s a little bit, ‘Aren’t I interesting?’ I keep saying to Michael Grandage, ‘I need to take this out,’ and he says, ‘Absolutely not – that’s the WHOLE point. Do NOT push it away from you.
“Absolutely own it and be completely strong and confident about that.’ And so that’s what I’ve done.” She’s doing the tour, she says, because she’s got things to say and thinks it could be fun.’’
Dawn French: Thirty Million Minutes is at the Crucible from tonight until Sunday. Tickets; from the Crucible box office, call 0114 249 6000 or go online at www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk