Staggering and wheezing onto the stage, Les Dennis looks like nothing less than a 1970’s comedian. The second he opens his mouth the transformation is complete. With a beer belly, a sweaty scalp and an ale flush we’re instantly transported back to the world of Manning, Cooper, Dodd and Miller.

In this one-man play, based very loosely on the life of Jackie Hamilton, we join Jigsy, an old-school scouse comedian backstage in a working-men’s club in 1997, looking back at a career he nearly had.

A comedian-turned-actor playing a comedian could all seem a bit meta, but Les Dennis inhabits the role of Jigsy perfectly. And with the love that both he and the play’s writer, Tony Staveacre, have put into the performance and script it captures the life of a comic in all its glory, mundanity and misery.

If great comedy is about light and shade, Jigsy’s stories about old comics and old jokes – counterpointed with the darkness and sorrow from which it springs – are a number of shades of grey.

That is in no small part due to the delivery of Dennis, inhabiting the role so well that he seems indivisible from it. Has he gone method for the part, or have the make-up, wardrobe and performance combined so well that it’s impossible to discern where Dennis ends and Jigsy begins?

Dennis shows his ability to flick the switch on the amusing anecdotes and one liners with Jigsy’s story about the scandal and injustice of the little-known Thetis submarine disaster on the Mersey – ruminating on the thin line between tragedy and comedy; and the manner in which 99 sailors went to a watery grave.

As Jigsy looks at his own mortality, in both career and life, his anger reaches a crescendo as he passes judgement on those who would judge the comics. He rails against the media revelling in the tears of clowns such as Cooper, Hancock and Cook – how the public love the sad downfall of their favoured comics.

But the show must go on – and as Jigsy leaves us with a brief glimpse behind the sequined curtain that leads him back on stage after the bingo, you wish that there was time for an encore; not just Jigsy’s own performance, but of that fading era of comedy.

Read our interview with Les Dennis, on Jigsy and Jackie Hamilton

Jigsy
The Royal Court
Until 3 November

Pic: Alan Moore