In A Nutshell
A blissful eulogy to two of Britain’s greatest comedians. Touching, never too sentimental, and roaringly funny.
We find Ern in a private room in hospital. Out of the blue, he sees a vision of his old comic partner, Eric. They go over all memories and catch up after 15 years since death did they part. Then, Eric makes Ernie an offer he can’t refuse: to do one last show together.
The process that actors and creators of this piece has been a long time in the making, but good things come to those who wait. What Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens have managed to do in their devised piece is capture an essence of Morecambe and Wise that really does the duo justice. The capture of this essence means that everything about the show incorporates a sense of flexibility and spontaneity which is crucial to who they’re paying tribute to: it’s something you simply can’t portray Morecambe and Wise without. Even in the more obviously structured first act, there’s still a fresh sense of fun and unpredictability that runs through it, driving the comedy at every point.
It’s difficult to think that there are many out there who are unaware or have never seen at least one of their shows or sketches. Even I, almost two generations younger than when they were in their prime, can’t fail to recognise them. But even so, Ashpitel and Stephens put just enough background, seamlessly woven into the shenanigans, to paint a deeper picture of their lives, careers, and relationship, including some much loved material from their shows by Eddie Braben, Dick Hills, and Sid Green. It’s done in such a way that it never feels like a history play, and instead colour their personas making the show more accessible for those who may not know the duo as well as throw in a few titbits of trivia for an older audience.
In the second act, Ashpitel and Stephens have created a 30ish minute front of curtain show, drawing on some of their most memorable routines. There’s really not much to say about it other than it’s a blistering performance that the real Morecambe and Wise would have been proud of themselves. Again, here there’s plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity, meaning it doesn’t feel like a mere emulation but a fluid and living piece of comedy. There are a few references to personalities of their age that will may go over the head of much younger fans, but these are few, and, for the catering-sized pack of laughs they deliver elsewhere, are certainly forgiven if not forgotten.
What’s great though is that, as touching as it is in places, especially in exploring the rich relationship Morecambe and Wise had between them, Ashpitel and Stephens never linger upon sentimentality. Morecambe and Wise are best know for the joy and laughter they brought to the world, and this is how both Ashpitel and Stephens go about creating this blissful eulogy. If you’re moved to tears, it’s not because they’ve purposefully pulled on the heartstrings with maudlin manipulation, but it’s because they’ve touched a deep and personal remembrance through a shared happiness: true justice to these behemoths of entertainment.
Direction & Production
Even though the main focus really is Ashpitel and Stephen, there’s still a solid production behind it. Simon Scullion’s set for Act I believably looks like a private hospital room, and even the curtain for Act II is wonderfully recreated and instantly recognisable. But detail aside, what Scullion, Director Owen Lewis, and the rest of the production team from musical director to lighting do, is give Ashpitel and Stephens the space and materials they need to perform unhindered, from props to music cues. There’s really not much other to be said about direction and production here because it all works so well that you hardly notice them. It’s Ashpitel and Stephens that are the main focus, and the production steadfastly supports them and never takes attention away from them. This is exactly what a production of this kind should be doing.
Ashpitel and Stephens are uncanny as Eric and Ernie. Not only are they are near physical doppelgängers to the genuine articles, but they’ve got their physical and vocal mannerisms and ticks down to a ‘t’. But even so, what is most astonishing about these two is that they are far from a stale emulation or tribute act. Whilst both embrace the recognisable personas and mannerisms of who they’re playing, what Ashpitel and Stephens do is find a wonderful rapport between themselves upon with they capitalise. The result is that there’s as beautiful sense of brotherhood between them as there was between Morecambe and Wise.
Furthermore, they are as expert as comic performers as the real Eric and Ernie were. In the second act, in particular, they feed off the audience’s reactions and each others bluffs to create a side-aching routine. Even in recreating established tropes, such as Eric’s famous paper-bag trick, the skits are delivered in such a way that it still made the entire audience bellow with glee: finding a way to make an old joke be delivered as if it were never seen before.
A remembrance most remarkable: marvellously funny and heartfelt. As the closest to the real thing as we can ever get since their passing, it’s a must for long-term fans, and a pure comic rush for those less familiar.
Eric and Little Ern runs at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 11 January 2015. Tickets are £10 – £45. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.