The Play What I Wrote
Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and, of course, Eddie Braben
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and Touring
The Play What I Wrote starts with a song about dreaming that you're awake when you're really asleep and it's a pretty good metaphor for the show itself, which is about one member of a comic double act (Joseph Alessi) trying to persuade the other that they should do a tribute to Morecambe and Wise. The other (Ben Keaton), however, believes he is now a serious playwright and wants to perform his latest "magnum opus" A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple. Of course, A Tight Squeeze is not a million miles away from the sort of play what Ernie Wise wrote.
The two double acts become inextricably intertwined and it becomes hard to tell where Alessi and Keaton leave off and Morcambe and Wise begin. Most of the second half, in fact, is Morcambe and Wise.
But not quite. Much of the public comment on the show leads one to expect, essentially, a M&W tribute act and it is possible to read it as such. Indeed, for the many in the audience at the Theatre Royal this was enough: they were there to relive what one might call the glory days of British comedy, delightedly welcoming every M&W trademark. When the famous gold curtains suddenly dropped in, there was almost a cheer. The slaps on the face, the "You said that without moving your lips", the "You can't see the join", "Bring Me Sunshine", all were recognised and enjoyed, with nostalgia joining laughter to create a potent mix of emotion.
But, to quote another comedian, there's more. It's also a play about the dynamics of a comedy duo, especially the role of the straight man, and about the nearness of comedy to pathos. Like the best comedy, it has depth and plays with our emotions as well as tickling our laughing muscles.
And it is very funny, not only because of the M&W memories and the skills of Alessi and Keaton in bringing them back to life, but also because of the incredibly rubbery Toby Sedgwick, (Arthur, Alessi's electrician friend who plays, among others, the musical director, Daryl Hannah and producer David Pugh). Sedgewick trained at the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris and it shows: his bodily control is quite brilliant.
And, like every Morcambe and Wise show, The Play What I Wrote has its special guest star, kept so secret that the Theatre Royal press officer wouldn't even whisper the name just minutes before the curtain went up. On the first night it was Stephen Tomkinson, whose languid actor-manager (Donald Wolfit where are you?) performance fitted A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple perfectly!
The audience loved it (apart from a couple sitting next to me who didn't crack a smile throughout the first half and didn't return after the interval) and so did I. Great fun.
"The Play What I Wrote" is at Newcastle until 13th March and tours until May 8th
Reviewer: Peter Lathan