Shôn Dale-Jones has eschewed his optimistic alter-ego, Hugh Hughes, for this year’s fringe, performing as himself instead with nothing but a desk, a microphone and a whimsical tale of irreplaceable loss and familial love. In The Duke, Dale-Jones slyly blends truth and fiction, concocting an idiosyncratic but ultimately forgettable hour of soulful storytelling that never adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
In 1974, Dale-Jones’ dad bought a Royal Worcester porcelain statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback for £750. Today, it is worth £8000. Or, it would be, had Dale-Jones’ widowed mother not accidentally broken it. The Duke is the coincidence-stuffed story of how Dale-Jones decided to put his life on hold in order to cheer up his dear old mum. Forgoing a soulless Hollywood career in which he is being pressured to make comically commercial changes to a screenplay 10 years in the writing, Dale-Jones ropes in some mates in search of some replacement porcelain, encountering shady antiques dealers and crooked coppers along the way.
It’s a nice enough story, told by a nice enough bloke, in a nice enough way, but Dale-Jones’ characteristic cocktail of fact and fiction has a tendency to jar when applied to material as prosaic as this. In a soothing Welsh lilt, he takes the audience on a journey that doesn’t really lead anywhere, delving into surreal side-alleys and quirky cul-de-sacs along the way for no apparent reason. If there is a larger comment being made here – perhaps on the pricelessness of memory, perhaps on the significance of friends and family in times of need – it is easily overlooked.
Dale-Jones’ work is supposed to shed light where there is dark, to scratch away at the dull veneer of modern life to reveal the irrepressible wonder underneath. He appeals to some common humanity in his audience, temporarily restoring their innocence for an hour or so as he spins his quaint yarns, then releasing them back into the big, bad world with a faint smile on their face.
But what is the value of distraction in a world plagued with suffering? Dale-Jones himself admits to experiencing a minor existential crisis in response to the plight of the thousands of refugees fleeing war zones for the safety of Europe. It’s why he has staged The Duke for free, and why he has unsubtly worked the refugee crisis into the story itself, and why venue staff stand outside with collections at the end of the show.
Which is all very earnest and impressive, and of course you’ll drop a few quid into the buckets afterwards, but it doesn’t make the preceding hour of theatre any better. The Duke remains a mildly interesting hour of footling storytelling, nothing more, and no amount of passive-aggressive guilt-tripping is going to change that.