“This evening’s meeting of Jane McDonald Fans Anonymous is full” reads the sign on the door of the Wee Room at the Free Sisters. As the audience for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane McDonald? gathers outside in anticipation, the atmosphere is one of cosy excitement and a collective enjoyment of an in-joke we’re all already completely on board with. This includes, it transpires, the one audience member who did not grow up in the UK, so has never actually heard of TV personality and singer, Jane McDonald.
Let’s face it – a niche celebrity reference is always, ALWAYS hilarious. Those of us who have enjoyed actively keeping up to date with the recent activities of Noel Edmonds can attest to this, as can anyone who still smiles to themselves every time they remember Dean Gaffney. The huge following garnered by Twitter phenomenon McFadden’s Cold War is a perfect recent example of this. In these troubling times, it seems nothing is more powerful than the invocation of a UK celebrity whose star is on the wane to unite us in affectionate mirth.
Grant McLachlan’s debut hour achieves exactly this. The charmingly camp references in the show’s title alone are enough to elicit a laugh, hence the preemptive enthusiasm of the assembled crowd.
When our host for the evening appears and ushers us to our seats, it is evident he’s a little nervous. We understand – it’s his first ever attempt at a solo show, after all. McLachlan is immediately utterly lovable. He is extremely personable and attentive to the needs of his audience – he’s worried we might be too warm, so adjusts the fans. He checks that the intro music isn’t too loud for us.
He opens the show by presenting us with a Jane McDonald mood board – a collection of pictures of his idol in various emotional states. We have to consider which Jane we are today – are we sanguine Jane? Are we ambivalent Jane? Puckish Jane? Or, perhaps, existential ennui Jane? From this point, the audience are happy to identify as “Cruisettes” – McLachlan’s merry band of Jane McDonald super fans.
What follows is a combination of storytelling, stand-up and self-help group-themed audience interaction. Those who dread audience participation can relax – the tone is appropriately supportive. The intimate setting serves McLachlan well here. He is also charismatic and endearing enough to keep us firmly on side throughout, and we’re happy to overlook the show’s minor flaws. Even a repeated joke about stalking, which would be problematic in the wrong hands, is accepted by the audience in the spirit in which is it clearly intended.
For all the whimsy and frivolity of the premise, the show is clearly of huge personal significance to McLachlan. He shares several anecdotes from his own life, including a tantalisingly redacted tale of a sexual encounter with a popular celebrity. The most striking of these is his disclosure that he’s been diagnosed with cancer, and has recently been undergoing treatment. The implication is that his unironic love of Jane McDonald has helped him through some tumultuous and incredibly challenging times. This implication is something it would be wonderful to see made more explicit, developed and explored in greater depth. The balance between serious and silly is something McLachlan could hone further and he’ll no doubt manage the shifts in tone more expertly as he develops his craft.
McLachlan is skilled in the universally beloved art of double entendre, but he’s (perhaps understandably) a little cautious with his content at this juncture and tends to play it pretty safe. It would be good to see what he’s capable of if he pushes the boundaries of his comedy a bit further. The structure of the show is so novel that we don’t mind if the narrative doesn’t achieve perfect coherence.
There’s so much to commend about this debut, and it will be exciting to see what McLachlan will offer as he grows in confidence as a performer. Whatever DID happen to the Wakefield one, “baby” Jane McDonald? Unbeknownst to her, she’s continuing to delight live audiences every night at the Free Fringe.