Guy Masterson / Theatre Tours International
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
Tim Whitnall's Morecambe was a biographical one-man show amongst many others in the Edinburgh Fringe programme for 2009, albeit one directed by leading Fringe producer Guy Masterson at a major Fringe venue, Assembly on the Mound. More than a year later, the show has had a West End run that won it an Olivier Award plus a nomination for its performer and has toured constantly, collecting five-star reviews and celebrity endorsements quicker than most Fringe shows collect dust once the festival ends.
The title refers, of course, to Eric Bartholomew, aka Eric Morecambe, the taller half of the most successful comedy double act in British television history which reached its peak when half of the population of Great Britain (28 million people) watched the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special on Christmas Day 1977. The play starts, however, with the announcement of Morecambe's death after a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 58. Eric comes out from behind the curtain (when he eventually finds the gap) and narrates, from beyond the grave, the story of his life.
Whitnall's dialogue flits between everyday speech and some lyrical, almost poetic passages with lots of quotations from famous sketches that fans will recognise immediately, which occasionally are a little gratuitous but are often twisted to be familiar but yet to mean something else within the context of the story. Morecambe's famous line about the speeding ambulance ends the show on a big laugh with a tear in the eye, because the ambulance is coming for him. Of course there's plenty of laughter, but there are some tears as well, especially in the second half, without descending too far into the sentimental.
Bob Golding's performance is astonishing and fully deserved the standing ovation on press night. His portrayal of the great man is as close as anyone has ever got, but this is more than just an impression as he finds a real human being behind the public persona. He also plays quite a number of other characters briefly throughout the show, and each has an individual voice and physicality, plus he sings, dances, does Eric's trick with the paper bag flawlessly and catches pills in his mouth without dropping one, as well as manipulating a rather unflattering ventriloquist dummy to represent Ernie Wise. If he had come on to take his bow on a unicycle, it wouldn't have been surprising.
Guy Masterson's slick direction, Tim Whitnall's lyrical script and Julia Bunce's simple but effective set all contribute to making Morecambe a very good piece of theatre, but what really makes it rise well above the usual biographical one-man or one-woman shows is Golding's performance. If he isn't careful, he could be doing this show for years to come, but then this is a show that everyone should see at least once.
Reviewer: David Chadderton