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Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson

Jon Culshaw celebrates Les Dawson

Jon Culshaw pays homage to Les Dawson in his new show Les Dawson: Flying High, coming to City Varieties on 25 September. Ahead of its arrival, we found out more about this heart-warming and funny performance, and looked back at Les Dawson’s history with Leeds Heritage Theatres.

Written by Ellen Carnazza.

Les Dawson was a frequent performer at Leeds Heritage Theatres, performing in The Good Old Days at City Varieties and various pantos at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Now, Jon Culshaw, actor, comedian and impersonator, delivers a touching, funny and warm-hearted homage and celebration of the beloved and much-missed comedy legend in Les Dawson: Flying High.

This new play from BAFTA and Olivier Award-winning writer Tim Whitnall and director Bob Golding brilliantly channels all the emotions such a rich life would procure, gifting the audience with anecdotes, incidents, and insights into Les’ journey, as he travels on Concorde at twice the speed of sound 68,000 feet above the Earth.

Going beyond a basic recount of Dawson’s life, the piece explores contemporary themes such as mortality, identity, love, kindness, spiritual beliefs or even ambition, that paced Les’ life. Whitnall analyses concepts we have all faced, or inevitably will, as he magnificently narrates the happy moments, trials, and tribulations of Les’ life. He presents a more philosophical version of the late popular comedian, as he dives into his indisputable literary talent and the origin of such a successful and brilliant life.

Growing up, Les, the self-declared ‘slum kid’, yearned to be recognised for his writing prowess, and to transform his passion of literature into a full-time profession. Simultaneously, he discovered his ability to make people laugh and carried this ambition into adulthood, reflected in his acclaimed memoirs No Tears for the Clown. Initially considered a tedious task by Les, this autobiography acted as an abundant pool of information for Tim Whitnall, offering glimpses and lessons to be extracted out of Dawson’s spectacular flight through life.

A portait of Les Dawson resting his head on his hands on a ball

Portrait of Les Dawson at City Varieties

It seems only fitting that Jon Culshaw is the one to take on the challenge of playing such an icon. Often regarded as Britain’s best impressionist, his catalogue includes over 350 characters, ranging from John Bishop to Barack Obama and from Professor Brian Cox to Michael ‘Govey’ Gove’  As a well-recognised entertainer, Jon has appeared on numerous comedy shows such as Dead Ringers, The Impressionable Jon Culshaw, Spitting Image, and The Impressions Show.

This is not the first collaboration between Jon Culshaw and Tim Whitnall.  In March 2022, Jon played ‘Hughie Green’ in Whitnall’s Lena, the moving story of Lena Zavaroni’s life and career.

Jon also played music icon David Bowie in dramatic play The Final Take: Bowie in the Studio (BBC Radio) and legendary documentary maker Alan Whicker in audio drama The Other side of the World with two Best Actor nominations in the New York Festivals and OneVoice awards.

From ambient music to inventive lighting and ingenious sound design, the play uses a variety of audio-visual effects, all participating in creating an entertaining, lively, and beautiful atmosphere. It is a must-see show, for all the family.

Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson in a suit and a big bow tie

Jon Culshaw as Les Dawson. Photo Steve Ullathorne

Les Dawson at Leeds Heritage Theatres

“It’s wonderful to be in the Leeds City Varieties – this superb example of a gothic paint shed.
I don’t know what it is, but for some obscure reason, this place always reminds me of home – it’s filthy and full of strangers.
And from the moment I arrived this morning they just couldn’t do enough for me, they were marvellous,
they just couldn’t do enough – so they never bothered”

– Les Dawson

As the quote above suggests, Les Dawson was a regular performer at The Varieties and held great affection for our characterful venue! He appeared on eight episodes of The Good Old Days between 1971 and 1983, including the final ‘goodbye’ special.

Here is a rare clip of him performing at The Good Old Days in 1983:

He was also a familiar face at Leeds Grand Theatre, performing in our pantomimes and mixed line-up shows, including Good Two Shoes in 1970 and Babes in the Wood in 1972.

Babes in the Wood Poster with Les Dawson's name

Poster of Babes In The Wood, 1970. Credit Leodis (Leeds Libraries)

A poster for Goody Two Shows with Les Dawson's name on

Poster of Goody Two Shows, 1972. Credit Leodis (Leeds Libraries)