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Michael Coveney: Jackie Mason and Jim Dale lead rush to summer solo shows

London is awash with performers going it alone

Jackie Mason

Two very old comedians are playing side by side on the Strand this week - Jackie Mason in the Adelphi, Jim Dale at the Vaudeville - as if to rubber stamp the shoal of solo shows and festivals coming our way some time soon.

The 'Man of Steal', James Freedman, is already reigniting the great days of sleight-of-hand deceivers at the Trafalgar Studios - I once saw a magician at the Lido in Paris ask a customer in the front row for the time, but the customer's watch had gone; the magic man then opened his jacket to reveal a lining pinned with three dozen watches he had lifted while shaking hands with diners and drinkers on his way to the stage.

Then stand by for Dawn French following Jim Dale into the Vaudeville later this year with her 30 Million Minutes touring show directed by Michael Grandage. Before then, of course, there are the countless comics at the Edinburgh Festival. And before them, this month and next, two full-on festivals of solo turns at the Soho Theatre and the White Bear in Kennington.

Solo turns help theatre owners fill a gap in their scheduling, and with long running shows becoming rarer than hen's teeth - the hit legit drama in the West End is always of the twelve-week limited season variety, as in American Buffalo and The Elephant Man - a stand-up or vaudevillian comic must appeal to managers and producers as a relatively cheap short term quick fix.

But is it? Jackie Mason is only here for a week, and his houses haven't been great. Jim Dale is heavily discounted, tickets on offer for £10 (do snap one up, he's a joy). And unless these comics are hired on a percentage of box office fee - highly unlikely, certainly in Mason's case - they could end up losing money for everyone except themselves.

What is it we love about a solo performer, though? Apart from talent and skill, it's something to do with valour, courage, confidence and even bare-faced cheek. In the case of a genius like Ken Dodd, it's a case of do it or die; he only really exists in the spotlight. With others, just as interestingly, a solo turn is often a cry for help, or possibly mercy.

'Mason's droll, nasty, mean... and I'm addicted to him'

With Jackie Mason, the unreconstructed Brooklyn bruiser, it's something else completely. He just couldn't care less. He now doesn't encourage advance booking as he'll probably die before you get there. Some of his audience, he says, are already wondering if they get any money back if he dies during the show.

What show? It's the opposite of a show. Mason looks a wreck, he mumbles into the front few rows, heckles the audience - "That was a joke, Mister!" - and dishes out ferocious diatribes against the Miliband brothers ("You're supposed to trust a guy who his own brother can't trust"), FIFA ("Sepp Blatter was re-elected by all the guys who stole the money in the first place"), the Grand Canyon ("It's a hole; there's nothing to see"), gay marriage ("If a fegelah wants to marry a fegelah, it's none of my business; good luck to them") the pricing racket on aeroplanes, Hillary Clinton ("a white feminist version of Barack Obama and the biggest bullshit yenta of all time"). Obama himself is responsible for a rise in anti-Semitism all over the world by pussy-footing around in the Middle East. He then performs a horrible mangled black version of the Star Spangled Banner.

Mason's droll, nasty, mean - he even shuffles over to the wings after half an hour and asks if it's time for the interval yet - and I'm addicted to him. He's as much a licensed, outrageous beyond-the-pale jester as Ken Dodd, except he's so Jewish it hurts. All his brothers were rabbis. So he's even a black sheep when he's at home. Over dinner in New York a few years ago he berated me for marrying "out"... "Couldn't you find a goyim?" And guess who picked up the tab...

What I most like about Mason is his outsiderism. He's against everyone. But you know where he's coming from, culturally and intellectually. One of the most gratifyingly shocking solos in recent years was Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag at the Soho Theatre. This year's Soho Solo Season (15 June to 25 July) showcases Christopher Fairbank in The Pyramid Texts, "a story of human fear and expectation, set in a boxing ring," Jade Anouka in Chef, one woman's journey from freedom and culinary success to running a prison kitchen as a convict, and beat-boxing champ Grace Savage in Blind, a biographical trip through the history of vocal manipulation.

Then, in the first two weeks of July, comes Colin Watkeys' Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre at the White Bear. A chance to catch up here with two of the country's most redoubtable alternative solo performers, gender-bending Claire Dowie and South African storyteller Jack Klaff, a fine actor in his own right.

There was a time when solo theatre moved right away from stand-up to richly textured theatre - and I'm thinking some of Steven Berkoff, as well as Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray and the indomitable late Ken Campbell. One of Campbell's best solo shows was Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, and I've long contended it's good enough for someone else to do it. So I can test this theory by rocking up to see Martin Stewart have a go.

Incidentally, I've read nothing but five-star raves for Sylvie Guillem's farewell solo show, and I look forward to catching it on the dance programme at the Edinburgh International Festival. Another great diva, Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, opened the season at Opera Holland Park last Sunday. Her programme of Russian songs and Italian arias was amazing, beautiful, unforgettable.

Like Jim Dale, she's alone on stage for two hours save for a pianist (and an extremely good one, Ekaterina Ganelina). And, like Dale, she brings a world of joy, delight, and rich experience to the stage. Hers is one of poetry, plaintive lyricism and high tragedy, while Jim covers the entertainment waterfront from music hall to Harry Potter via the Carry On films and the National Theatre. Who needs a stage full of other people?

Read more from Michael Coveney