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of the tall one with the gags, insisting the failing partnership will revive only if they present the latest of his 72 unpublished plays, a very serious French Revolution epic with a hapless, innuendo-bedevilled script and a guest star.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 yorktheatreroyal.co.uk