The Play What I Wrote, Birmingham Rep, at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
THE Play What I Wrote premiered in 2001 with its canny critique of fractious double acts and boundless love for Morecambe & Wise.
If anything, Eric & Ernie now cast an even longer shadow amid a paucity of new comedy duos on TV to follow Mayall & Edmondson, Ant & Dec, Fry & Laurie, Lee & Herring, French & Saunders, Mitchell & Webb, Armstrong & Miller, Coogan & Brydon, Mel & Sue, Newman & Baddiel, Reeves & Mortimer, The Mighty Boosh and Little Britain.
Podcasts appear to be the more favoured home now for comic jousting. That leaves York’s burgeoning satirical musical duo Fladam – Florence Poskitt and Adam Sowter – as both a rarity and a breath of nostalgic fresh air in a vacuum of such couplings on stage, although Nettle Soup’s Georgia Firth and Josh Liew showed new possibilities for partnerships in their verbatim theatre piece Stones On The Riverbed at York Theatre Royal’s Green Shoots showcase earlier this month.
The Play What I Wrote now feels part of the past, its patter and patterns of comedy from a bygone age, never being quite as funny as Eric and Ernie and only making you wish the long-gone duo could bring more of their vintage sunshine: Vitamin ‘C’ here standing for comedy.
Writers Hamish McColl and Sean Foley know more than a thing or two about double acts themselves, having been partners in The Right Size from 1988 to 2006. For West End and Broadway hit The Play What I Wrote, they teamed up with Eddie Braben, the chap what wrote little Ern’s plays, and the duo starred in the premiere with Toby Jones, no less.
For this Birmingham Rep revival, director Foley has brought together the lanky and lean Dennis Herdman and shorter, sterner Thom Tuck, new to each other but a natural dovetail with their contrasting nonsense-aplenty and no-nonsense demeanours.
They play Herdman & Tuck, a double act in trouble after more than a decade together. Tuck, the prickly one, has grown professionally jealous of Herdman, the funny one who gets the gags and the laughs.
Tuck insists the partnership will continue only if they present the latest of his 72 unpublished plays, A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple, a French Revolution epic, with a guest star.
Through a series of elaborate deceptions, Herdman and vainglorious producer David Pugh (one of a handful of increasingly manic, prima-donna cameos for a long-suffering Mitesh Soni) dupe Tuck into thinking the play will be presented with Sir Ian McKellen in the company. In reality, Herdman has signed up the comic duo for a Morecambe & Wise tribute, minus Sir Ian.
Hindered by two of their backstage team being ruled out by Covid, the opening performance had a feel of “the play must go on” about it, with more noise than usual behind the golden curtain – and an impromptu explanation from the production manager in a stop for a more complicated scene change.
The auditorium was far from packed, never easy for performers needing to break down the fourth wall to establish a rapport pronto, and consequently Herdman and Tuck’s comic rhythm was not quite there, but then they are playing a failing comic coupling who have to try too hard for laughs. That is their double-edged sword, requiring Herdman and Tuck to be funnier than their act.
You could sense the audience expecting more Morecambe & Wise badinage, and whenever we were given tantalising tasters, the mood visibly perked up. Eric & Ernie are a hard act to follow, particularly when they keep hovering in the shadows here.
Under Foley’s direction, the comic tone is bordering on the delirious but thankfully everything picked up after the interval, acquiring a much needed fifth gear with the heavily trailered arrival of a surprise guest. Not Sir Ian (although apparently, he has popped up in the past), but Sue Holderness, best known for playing Boycie’s wife, Marlene, in Only Fools And Horses.
The rest of the week’s guest line-up remains hush-hush, but one upcoming star was very much at home on this very stage only a matter of weeks ago. No more clues.
Sue’s role – or Dame Sue as they honoured to call her – was to be subjected with good grade and good humour to humiliation and mockery at the hands of both Tuck’s hapless, innuendo-bedevilled script and the constant comic interjections of Herdman in playful, handicapping Morecambe tradition.
By now, bolstered by Holderness’s joie de vivre, Herdman and Tuck have found their mojo, never better than when competing to play Eric, and Foley and McColl’s post-modern analysis of the often-complex chemistry and vulnerability of double acts turns from bittersweet to sharply smart yet affectionate.
So much so that the happy conclusion finds Herdman and Tuck tucked up in bed, just like Morecambe & Wise in Braben’s scripts, affirming why each still needs the other, but overall, 21 years since the premiere, even nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.