This is the life of John Eric Bartholomew encapsulated into less than two hours (including interval) and it is told as though by the man himself, played by Bob Golding. Bartholomew was an entertainer, a performer from boyhood. As a lad he won a talent contest that gained him an audition with Jack Hylton where he first encountered another budding talent called Ernest Wise. They worked together soon after and became fast friends who began to develop a double act, launched in 1940 (when John was 14) as Bartholomew and Wiseman.
Split by war service - Wiseman in the Merchant Navy, Bartholomew down the mines as a Bevin Boy - they teamed up again after the war. But Bartholomew and Wise did not have the right ring to draw in the punters and so Bartholomew changed his name to that of his home town. As Morecambe and Wise they became famous - but it was not all easy going and this is a tale of set backs as well as success.
Bob Golding does have a likeness to Eric Morecambe and has clearly studied his vocal and physical performance but this is no impersonation. He makes the material and the manner seem entirely his own s well as offering the essence of Eric. With a personality so loved by the public, the show, of course, is carried on the affection of the audience for a much missed funny man but this charismatic performance would still be a tremendously enjoyable show even if the character was entirely fictional.
Tim Whitnall's script covers Morecambe's entire career from his first appearances on stage when a little boy and handles the set backs and heart attacks as he might himself have done: Gary Morecambe, writing about his father, says that, even in private, Eric never dropped his comic persona; he always felt the need to entertain. However, in the midst of the laughter you catch your breathe at the poignancy of some moments.
Inevitably this is not the story of just one man but of two and Ernie Wise is present in the form of a ventriloquist's dummy, voiced by Golding. These were partners who agreed always to split what they earned between them and never to worry about who it was that got the laughs. When Morecambe was recovering from his first heart attack Wise went on working as a solo act but still sent half his earnings on to his partner. The closeness of that relationship is celebrated as much as Morecambe himself, never more touchingly than when Eric returns the dummy to its home in a wardrobe basket. . Bob Golding also plays every other character in their story from Eric's mum to Jack Hylton, Lew Grade to Bruce Forsyth.
Designer Julia Bunce has set it simply with a red chaise longue in front of a curtained gilt proscenium arch that is a constant reminder of the variety stages on which Morecambe honed his talent and gave pleasure to millions, the theatres to which he continually returned - and not just because it was a way of refilling the coffers.
Director Guy Masterson, who developed the show with writer and performer, shows yet again his genius for directing one man shows. I don't know how many actual gags and business are taken directly from Morecambe and Wise's actual material but he has caught the spirit of their work in this production. In references to some of those performers who guested on their later television shows - from Glenda Jackson to Shirley Bassey - the effect relies very much on the audience's own memories.
Morecambe died 25 years ago - this could be considered a quarter century memorial tribute - but their television highlights have made them familiar to later generations and if those memories aren't yours, its only a tiny part of the material. Glimpses of agents and television magnates Hylton and Grade will mean much more to those who know about them but you don't have to know your show-biz history to get the point. This is a show that bubbles with life and laughter. When I saw it the audience stood as one to applaud it.
Currently booking to 17th January, 2010
Graham Williams reviewed this production in Swansea
Reviewer: Howard Loxton