Guy Masterson/Theatre Tours International and Anna Murphy for Feather Productions
Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea, and touring
The opening moments of this beautifully written and smartly staged one-man show - starring Bob Golding, who succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of stepping into the shoes of a figure who was one half of Britain's best loved comedy partnerships - is almost Dylan Thomas-like in its phrasing and descriptive power, describing as it does the background and character of the late great Eric Morecambe and the people and events that shaped his destiny at a young age.
The Dylan connection is perhaps unsurprising, as director Guy Masterson has extensive experience of performing in as well as directing one-man plays revolving around the writings of Swansea's most famous literary lion. But how, one asks oneself, can the life and career of a determinedly mainstream television entertainer be turned into a piece of theatre with enough emotional impact, depth and class to appeal to those who would normally eschew all notions of watching what is so often misguidedly perceived to be "lowbrow", populist television (we've all met 'em, folks - the ones who claim never to watch TV except for the likes of Panorama and The Wire)?
Well, attemtping to satisfy both sides of the theatregoing coin is certainly a Herculean task, but Masterson, Golding and playwright Tim Whitnall have risen to the challenge and come up with a work which has to rate as one of the most uplifting, moving, cathartic and - perhaps more importantly - funniest pieces of theatre that I have seen in many a long year.
We first encounter Morecambe when he walks through the plush red curtains, surrounded by a proscenium arch set decorated with Magritte-style clouds painted on a pale blue sky (thereby signifying that we are in otherworldly territory)and wearing the flat cap and long coat that he would don at the end of every edition of The Morecambe and Wise Show to signify that he was heading for home.
As the minutes tick by, we are transported into Morecambe's past. We accompany him as he rises from his beginnings as a young lad, earning a crust with routines such as the one where he sings "I'm Not All There" to appreciative audiences, to his meeting with the young Ernest Wiseman, a star in the ascendant who is taken under the wing of Eric's kindly mother Sadie.
Along the way we encounter stellar names in the world of entertainment, from impresario Jack Hylton right through to TV producer John Ammonds, via Vivian Van Damm (of Windmill Theatre fame), Billy Marsh, Lew Grade and, of course, legendary scriptwriter Eddie Braben, who turned Morecambe and Wise from entertainers into what would now be called superstars just as surely as Galton and Simpson did for Tony Hancock just a few years before.
Golding's evocation of Morecambe is uncanny, such is his mastery of the comedian's vocal style, rhythms and cadences and mannerisims: everything is spot on - the rocking back on the heel, the double-takes, the hand gestures. It's all there.
The laughs come thick and fast, but so do the moments of genuine poignancy in which Eric professes his friendship for Ernie (represented here as a ventriloquist's dummy into which Golding breathes life) and his love for his mother: a scene in which Sadie passes away before his eyes, having waited for him to come home, is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes, such is its power.
Anecdotes which might be familiar to self-confessed anoraks such as myself - such as the one in which a man who drives him to hospital following his heart attack and asks him to sign his autograph with the words, "Before you go..." - are all brilliantly retold here, and it is little wonder that the Taliesin audience reacted with such affection to Golding's bravura performance.
A superlative piece of theatre, and one which prompted a spontaneous standing ovation in which I am proud to say that I participated, this is a tremendous theatrical work which thoroughly deserves its award-winning status.
Howard Loxton reviewed this production at the West End's Duchess Theatre
Reviewer: Graham Williams