Theatre Royal Bath until 22 January Words by Melissa Blease
The veteran British actor Charles (Game of Thrones; The Crown; the RSC; etc) Dance is standing centre stage wearing an ill-fitting, French Revolution-era ballgown, similarly ill-fitting white stockings and a ludicrous wig. The previous night, Tom (Marvel superstar) Hiddleston did exactly the same thing, wearing exactly the same outfit (at least, I’m guessing it was the same one; I can’t see anybody wanting to keep that frock in their own wardrobe for posterity).
On other occasions, an eclectic roll-call of stage, screen and TV superstars including Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor, Sir Ian McKellen, Daniel Radcliffe and Dawn French have gamely subjected themselves to the same ordeal: guest starring in aspiring playwright Thom Tuck’s play-within-a-play A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple, which Thom’s comedy partner Dennis Herdman has secretly hijacked and turned into a tribute to Morecambe and Wise, with a £5,000 fee from West End producer David Pugh (who is, as it happens, the real-life production’s real-life co-producer) creating added incentive for Herdman’s grand deception.
Complicated, convoluted… ridiculous? Indeed. But hey, the plot matters not. What matters is that director Sean Foley (who co-created and performed in the original incarnation of The Play What I Wrote back in 2001, directed by none other than Kenneth Branagh) has created a new revival of a production that not only pays respectful tribute to one of the UK’s best-loved comedy acts, but represents an utterly joyful homage to the centuries-old tradition of British comedy theatre itself.
Set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, tag. Open-ended gags that never reach their conclusion. Slapstick, innuendo, intentional corpsing; cross-dressing, crossed lines, absurdity; timing, timing, timing: if you’re looking for a masterclass in the customs, conventions and, if you like, etiquette of classic high-octane farce, this is the show for you.
As Dennis (the ‘Morecambe’ one) and Thom (‘Wise’), Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck make an entirely believable double-act, their seamless, impeccably-timed, non-stop repartee occasionally subtly tinged with the harbingers of impending failure, Thom relying on his Next Great Play to dig them out of a hole, and Dennis constantly defying desperation with optimism. As sidekick Arthur (“and, of course, Eddie Braben” – and of course, fans of Morecambe and Wise will know what that means), Mitesh Soni does a tremendous job of multi-tasking in all manner of roles and situations, his Scarlett Johansson in particular grabbing the limelight as the second mystery guest star of the evening.
If your appetite for live ‘n’ ludicrous is limited, there may be times during The Play What I Wrote when you could find yourself having to fight the urge to go home and watch actual Morecambe and Wise (or Reeves and Mortimer, or Horne and Corden, or even The Young Ones – Eric and Ernie’s influence was far-flung, and timeless) instead of hanging on for the punchline that you know is never going to hit us. But having said that, perhaps being reminded of the original power of the influence represents the true power of a truly good homage? Ultimately, The Play What I Wrote brings sunshine to the stage.