Birmingham Repertory Theatre – until 1 January 2022 then touring
Do you need to be of a generation to remember Morecambe & Wise, to which this play is a loving tribute-cum-amiable-ripoff? Probably not. They are stamped on the national memory, probably genetically. And anyway, there is universality in the idea of pretension overreaching itself in “the serious thea-tah”, and even more in a comedy duo in which the straight man yearns to go legit with a serious play and is conned by his larkier collaborator into thinking he has a contract.
The central pair do not attempt to be lookalikes, but to channel the essence of our heroes. Dennis Herdman is taller, gangling, physically hilarious; Thom Tuck smaller, neat, fussy, with a bit of a strut and a nice edge of uncertainty. At one point they actually quarrel over who will be the funny one with the black-rimmed glasses, but we know really, and so do they…. and there’s a real edge of pathos in that. Brilliant.
Mitesh Soni is the butt of both, a theatre electrician persuaded into various undignified roles (notably a ginger Scarlett Johannson with knickers showing) when what he really wants is to play a harmonica solo in memory of his mother. That gives it an element not in the original shows, and helps it move away from tribute-band territory.
This production has a tour coming, but for me was worth a pilgrimage both to a notable revival and to the shrines of various comedy gods: not only Sean Foley who co-wrote it twenty years ago and now directs it for the first time in his new job as AD of Birmingham Rep; and also (since nobody ever mentions them much) the producer and lover of all things funny David Pugh, who is actually a character in it. The hapless Arthur has to impersonate him: Soni plaintively Brummie, small and camp in a white suit and baker-boy cap.
The great thing about Foley is that as director, writer and sometimes performer he has happily spanned the breadth of comedy from drily intellectual all the way to the end of the pier, and off it with a resounding splash. No awful pun, no repeated fall off a wall, no ridiculous prop or set detail is too broad: designer Alice Power, take a bow and join the comedy gods. We sort of expected the talking skeleton, but not the entire row of dancing ones, the dungeon rack and jenga moment, the inflatable towering palms, giant breadstick or enormous curtain- dog. Thank you.
The Morecambe and Wise echoes, even apart from deathless Braben jokes like the ice cream van, are done with love and delight: Arsenal, “Rubbish!”, the odd cheek-slap, the curtain gags and of course the breezy contempt for the guest-star dragged in to the eventual play. Who was, on this opening night, Tom Hiddleston. Not being a follower of the Marvel franchise in which he is Loki the horned god of mischief, I still thought of him mainly as either the Night Manager of the Olivier-winning Coriolanus (and yes, there’s a joke on those last syllables, as there should be. Never waste a rudery, it’s panto time). Longtime fans of the play reckon it is always best if the guest star (they’ve ranged from Jeff Goldblum to Geldof) isn’t a comic, and that if a classical actor they should mercilessly send up the fact. Hiddleston is perfect, pompously announcing that he ‘does his own stunts’ and demonstrating a school-gym forward roll before struggling, with classically-trained pain, to make Thom’s subliterate lines work. His “I am Loki” is met by Dennis with a sigh of ‘Mm.You’re pretty high maintenance tonight, love”. He isn’t. Hiddleston must do more straight-man comedy.
There are plenty of surprise jokes which, amid the general merriment, stick out as memorable. Birmingham should be especially grateful for one new word. Thom Tuck’s lone plaint when he tries to leave the act is dubbed a “Solihulloquy”. Now that’s a word which just has to stick.
Box office birmingham-rep.co.uk. To 1 Jan
Touring on until March. – Bath, Salford, Chichester, Malvern, Sheffield
For @lib_thinks, #ThePlayWhatIWrote at @BirminghamRep is ‘worth a pilgrimage to the shrines of comedy gods’ including Morecambe & Wise, The Right Size co-creator Sean Foley (now helming) & producer @davidsoho1. ★★★★ #theatrereviews