REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on The Play What I Wrote, York Theatre Royal

Slap-stick: The dustpan-wielding Thom Tuck left has a dust-up with double-act partner Dennis Herdman in The Play What I Wrote. Picture: Manuel Harlan

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

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.

Dennis Herdman’s Dennis, left, and Thom Tuck’s Thom argue over who should play Eric in their Morecambe & Wise tribute. Picture: Manuel Harlan

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.

This act has legs…or does it? Thom Tuck, left, and Dennis Herdman as failing, fading double act Herman & Tuck. Picture: Manuel Harlan

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.

Verdict: ***

The Play What I Wrote doubles up on double acts with nod to Eric and Ernie in York Theatre Royal week of mystery guests

The long and short of it: Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck argue over who should be Eric Morecambe in their Morecambe & Wise tribute. Picture: Manuel Harlan

THE Play What I Wrote is both a dissection of double acts and a celebration of Morecambe and Wise.

Written by The Right Size comic coupling of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl in tandem with Eddie Braben, the chap what wrote little Ern’s plays, the West End and Broadway hit is doing the rounds anew, playing York Theatre Royal from Monday for a week in a Birmingham Rep touring production directed by artistic director Foley.

Premiered in 2001, Foley and McColl wanted their play to be inspired by Eric and Ernie rather than a tribute act to the beloved double act, and so they came up with a comedy duo of their own.

“The show is a tease,” says Foley of the combination of the expected and unexpected. “It’s a really lovely dance between the idea of you’re watching a Morecambe and Wise tribute show but actually you’re not. So, whenever we tease people with ‘here’s a bit of them’, they come to understand what the show is – which is a sophisticated but daft homage.”

The duo’s partnership is in trouble after 12 years. The shorter, prickly one, has grown professionally jealous of the tall one with the gags, insisting the failing partnership will revive only if they present the latest of his 72 unpublished plays, a very serious French Revolution epic with a hapless, innuendo-bedevilled script and a guest star.

Through a series of elaborate deceptions, the lanky one and oleaginous producer David Pugh dupe the little’un into thinking the play will be presented with Sir Ian McKellen in the company. In reality, he has signed up the comic duo for a Morecambe & Wise tribute, minus Sir Ian.

The Play What I Wrote is at once a delightful nostalgic re-creation of Eric and Ernie’s comic sunshine – you wish for even more of the old magic – and a smart post-modern analysis of the often complex chemistry and vulnerability of double acts. In a show of unalloyed joy, the happy conclusion finds the comedy duo abed, just like Morecambe & Wise, affirming why each needs the other.

The two clashing comedians will be played by Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck, joined by Mitesh Soni, playing their comedy sidekick Arthur and all manner of other roles.

The cast can spot quickly if Eric and Ernie devotees are present. “But I don’t actually think it’s important at all for people to know Morecambe and Wise,” says Tuck.

“It’s just an extra sprinkling for the people who enjoy it, but at the first reference to them you can tell what percentage of the audience are Morecambe and Wise fans because you can hear the murmur ‘they’re doing it’.

“In a later scene, we do ‘What do you think of the show so far? Rubbish’. Some days that will get a round of applause and some days it will get a big laugh, but it doesn’t really matter between the two.”

The Play What I Wrote nods to Eric and Ernie by having a mystery guest in each performance, in keeping with their television shows: a convention that requires the cast to rehearse constantly with new actors.

During the Birmingham run, Tom Hiddleston, Kara Tointon and Sue Holderness were among those to pop up, but the guests for York remain a mystery, as an exploratory call to communications manager Amy Goodman affirmed.

“There are big changes depending on the guest star and the audience will react differently as well,” says Herdman. “They all bring something unique and change our dynamic instantly and we’re all either fawning around them or trying to pull the rug from under them.

“It’s fun! It’s lovely to have them on stage and be able to take the mickey and play with them. They’ve all been up for it and most have been terrified as well! It’s nice that they have a certain status and yet they are also clearly flesh and blood and a nervous human being.”

Director Foley praises the energy of Herdman, Tuck and Soni. “What is dazzling, and these guys do it completely brilliantly, is making all of the show look like it’s a high-wire act and things can go wrong at any time. That is really brilliant comic acting.

“Someone said to Eric Morecambe, ‘I love all your improv lines and your ad-libs’ and he responded, ‘It takes a lot of rehearsal to get them right’ and that’s the same with The Play What I Wrote.

“With this show you need the chemistry between the cast. We were very lucky that from final auditions, when we saw Dennis and Thom together, they were immediately a double act. Then we added Mitesh in and it just worked.”

Tuck notes how Eric and Ernie’s humour crosses generations through fitting into a comic tradition. “The ingrained thing about British people is that we like cheekiness and there’s a sort of ‘anti-establishmentism’ in Morecambe and Wise’s work,” he says.

“Whether it’s a look direct to camera which says ‘we know this is stupid’ or the play with the guest star, it’s ‘let’s muck about’. British audiences from variety onwards have had that sort of fun. It’s always high on the priority list.”

The Play What I Wrote, York Theatre Royal, June 27 to July 2. Box office:  01904 623568 or at