When I was a kid with a passion for pop music, I was thrilled to discover that Woolworth’s was selling pop singles at about half the price of the local record shop. I forked out for what I believed to be the Beatles’ I Feel Fine and took it home, feeling I had got a real bargain, only to discover that it was a cover version knocked out by session musicians. It was a thoroughly professional job but it didn’t feel quite right.
If you were feeling cruel, you could describe this tribute to Morecambe and Wise as the theatrical equivalent of Woolworth’s notorious Embassy label.
But although there are moments that don’t completely hit the mark, this is such a palpably affectionate show, and it is so enjoyable to see the familiar routines played out once again, that I left the theatre feeling much happier than I did when I played that dodgy cover of the Beatles.
The show, first seen on the Edinburgh Fringe and now expanded to 90 minutes for the West End, is devised and performed by Ian Ashpitel (Ernie) and Jonty Stephens (Eric). Both performers give persuasive impressions of these great comedians, look passably like them, and capture the lovely innocence of their double act. At the start Ernie is dozing in a hospital bed. A white-coated doctor comes in and puts on a pair of glasses to read the patient’s notes. No sooner have we seen the specs than we realise that it’s Eric Morecambe, or rather the ghost of Eric Morecambe, come to visit his former colleague in his time of need. Then a medical alarm goes off, signifying Ernie’s demise, and what follows seems to be a reunion of the old friends and sparring partners on the other side. All of which makes the show sound solemn, which it absolutely isn’t.
The production almost entirely consists of old routines and the familiar bickering, bantering relationship between the pair, We hear of the plays Ernie has been writing, and the whole house laughs as a police siren is heard, long before Eric actually delivers the immortal pay-off: “He’s not going to sell many ice creams going at that speed.” There’s also the Grieg Piano Concerto sketch, still blissfully funny despite the absence of “Mr Andrew Preview”, and reminiscences about old times.
Fortunately, the hospital bed is a double, so the pair can sit up alongside each other as they did in those great Eddie Braben sketches. The show is touching as well as funny. Ashpitel’s Ernie movingly describes how angry he felt when Eric died, ending a partnership of more than 40 years, and the couple’s affection for each other, and occasional exasperation, are both beautifully caught.
Stephens also brilliantly captures Morecambe’s ability to be wonderfully funny while doing almost nothing, simply mooching around and mucking about. He also suggests the driven quality of a comic who was always “on”, which doubtless contributed to his early death. Nothing these performers can do can quite match the real Morecambe and Wise, of course.
But the show’s heart is in the right place and anyone who loves Eric and Ernie will find this affectionate tribute unexpectedly moving as well as funny.