Comedian Steve Royle received an invitation he could not refuse when he was asked to play legendary entertainer Dan Leno in a new play. Its creator David Slattery-Christy tells FIONA FINCH why the casting was instant
It was while researching the archives at London’s famous Theatre Royal on Drury Lane that David Slattery-Christy first learned more about the legendary Victorian music hall star Dan Leno.
Many years later the Blackpool-based playwright and director happened to be watching the annual pantomime at the resort’s Grand Theatre when entertainer Steve Royle bounded on stage.
Within weeks Steve had a preliminary script in hand and David (pictured below) had found his Dan Leno.
The curtain goes up on the resulting production ‘Dan Leno A Royal Jester!’ at Chorley Little Theatre this weekend, before touring to other theatres around the country.
David said: “I read a lot about the success Dan Leno had in the late Victorian early Edwardian era. The reason I never got round to writing the play was I never thought I would find anybody who could play such a unique character.
“Steve was playing Buttons in Cinderella at the Grand and the minute he walked on stage I thought ‘Dan Leno’. The more I watched him ... Dan’s comedy is very physical.”
David noted Dan had a “distinctive physical facial comedy.”
In Chorley based entertainer Steve he had found a match, a man whose face was equally expressive.
Steve is renowned as a comedian but also as a much-loved seaside pantomime star, appearing at the Grand every year for the past 16 years.
By coincidence Dan Leno, who was born in 1860, had also appeared at the Grand Theatre, but in 1900/1901,
David said: “It’s odd I saw Steve on the stage Dan Leno actually walked on. I literally saw him and over Christmas wrote the first draft of the script. I let Steve have a copy before he finished that panto. Steve really liked it and said he would do it.”
The production was given a first airing at Lytham festival last year and has since been further developed.
Steve said: “First of all I was delighted I was asked to be in it. David wrote the script with me in mind. That’s always very flattering - but it’s a long time since I’d done any proper acting on stage.”
It was back in 1986 when Steve, a man of many talents, including actor, juggler and radio presenter, played the part of Bugsy Malone at Oldham Theatre Workshop. He said: “Dan Leno was as passionate about comedy and pantomime as I am and hopefully I will be able to do him justice. Dan started the tradition of pantomime. With me doing pantomime for so many years it’s something I’m interested in.
“I’m excited about it and delighted to be doing it at Chorley Little Theatre - close to home and close to my heart.”
It was not the first time Steve had been compared to Dan Leno and he relished the opportunity to learn more about the star: “It’s been a real challenge for me to bring in humour from Leno in these sketches. It’s nice to have a go at bringing some of these works back to life that haven’t been seen for over 100 years.”
Dan spent the last months of his life in Camberwell asylum. It was thought he had had a breakdown and become insane. He died in 1904.
Now,looking at his symptoms, it is thought he had an undiagnosed brain tumour which changed his behaviour.
David said: “A lot of things happened as a result of that, not insanity. I think it would have a contemporary relevance in a way it gives people an understanding of how mental health issues were treated in Dan’s time as opposed to today.”
In contrast now, he said: “There is a big awareness about mental health and people are treated in a positive way as opposed to being locked away in an asylum.”
He continued: “Somebody did say would it make a good film or TV drama? Absolutely it would because I think Dan’s story was very interesting ... funny and sad in equal measure.
“Dan was a child performer growing up working the northern music halls and that’s how he learned his trade and (then) went to London and became a massive star.”
Performing with his brother as one of “The Great Little Lenos” he learned to clog dance in Lancashire and became a champion clogger. But after hurting his back in an accident on stage he changed his tumbling and contortion act and became a patter singer and comedian.
Dan, real name George Wild Galvin, then created gossipy comic characters, both male and female which audiences loved. Renowned characters included The Beefeater, The Doctor and Mrs Kelly as well as his famous Mother Goose pantomime role.
The star became a favourite of King Edward VII and the royal family.
Classic music-hall songs of the period have been included in the production.
David, who has also directed the play, has chosen a north west-based cast with Nicole Violet from Blackpool as Lydia Leno, Neil Rowland as Dan’s brother Henry Galvin, Louise Steggals as Nurse Kelly and Lytham’s Andy Cooke as Doctor Savage/Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
Dan Leno’s ghost still stalks theatre folklore. It is said to be a good omen for a production if it appears on first nights at Drury Lane.
While David acknowledges: “plays don’t really do Drury Lane” it would, he said, be good to do a London theatre performance “just to bring Dan back to London”.
* Dan Leno A Royal Jester! is at Chorley Little Theatre on Saturday, March 23 and Sunday March 24 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £10 and £8.00 for concessions. The show will also be performed in Settle, Oswaldtwisle , Stratford on Avon, Eastbourne and at Lytham Hall.