Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Play What I Wrote

Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and of course Eddie Braben
Theatre Royal, Nottingham, and Touring
(2004)

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as the old saying goes. And the success of The Play What I Wrote is not that Joseph Alessi and Ben Keaton impersonate the incomparable Morecambe and Wise - the production is a pastiche of the phenomenal pair's work, holding them in awe and paying fitting tribute to them.

After two sell-out runs in the West End, the play which won every major theatre award going is now touring the country.

Ben has written a play, an epic set in the French Revolution, called A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple - just the sort of thing Ernie Wise might have come up with for the duo's television show which had more viewers than all today's reality shows put together.

But Joe doesn't want to do the play - he wants them to continue with their double act, even though they haven't worked for two years. He believes if they perform a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, Ben's confidence will be restored and the double act will thrive. First, though, Joe needs to persuade a guest star to appear in the play what Ben wrote.

The Play What I Wrote is the only show with a surprise celebrity guest at every performance. So far guests have included Roger Moore, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Glen Close, Kylie Minogue and Ralph Fiennes.

The first half is clever rather than hysterical and may not be to everyone's comic taste. Joe claims Sir Ian McKellen has agreed to appear only for him to pull out at the last minute: "Can't come - panto, Bolton, Mother Goose."

When Ben and Joe are arguing about the future of their act, Ben says he wants to move in another direction and become a writer. Joe replies: "I want Posh Spice to sing in tune - but it'll never happen!"

Visual humour is introduced in the shape of Toby Sedgwick, Joe's electrician friend who unconvincingly tries to persuade Ben he is everyone from a successful agent to Darryl Hannah. There's plenty of slapstick, knockabout humour which can leave some members of the audience cold.

But the play soars to a different level after the interval when Ben and Joe perform their tribute. With Eddie Braben, who penned Eric and Ernie's material for 14 years, on the writing team the spirit of Morecambe and Wise comes shining through.

The celebrity on the night I attended was Brian Capron whose appearance prompted a wonderful take-off by Sedgewick of Capron's on-screen role as murderous Richard Hillman in Coronation Street.

Capron was quite prepared for the others to send him up and he willingly joined in the hamming. He relished his role as the Comte de Toblerone and the difficulty he had delivering his lines because he couldn't stop laughing showed that the actors were having as much fun as the audience.

There was a fair amount of ad-libbing going on too. No two performances will be the same, so if you see The Play What I Wrote you're almost guaranteed a unique experience.

I don't know if or how Michael Gyngell has changed the original production which was directed by Kenneth Branagh. The touring version is a classy tribute to one of this country's finest ever double acts and it'll definitely bring you sunshine.

"The Play What I Wrote" tours until May 8th

Reviewer: Steve Orme