“You don’t know why you’re funny, you just know that people laugh… you don’t know why.”
Perhaps surprising words coming from Ernie Wise, one half of seminal comedy duo Morecambe and Wise, during a 1966 BBC interview. In an insightful and frank exchange, the two tentpoles of British comedy admit that their foray into funny began initially out of necessity – “It began as a way of making money, quite honestly”, Morecambe declares early in – and that there was a nebulous, unknown quality as to why and how they ‘worked’, and went on to become one of the Nation’s most beloved and iconic comedy pairings.
Fast-forward half a Century or so, and whatever ephemeral magic ebbed between the duo has at the very least been channelled – potentially even bottled – by the creatives involved in this special, 20th anniversary production of The Play What I Wrote running at the Birmingham REP this Christmas and New Year.
Attempting to unravel all the layers of play-within-a-play, homage-not-impersonation meta-ness of the show may initially seem a daunting task, but in truth What I Wrote is a fairly straightforward affair, striking gold in foregoing any attempts at biopic or imitation by instead using the essence and spirit of the iconic duo as its blueprint for bringing a wholly original, Morecambe and Wise-esque story to the stage in suitably daft yet irrepressible style.
First staged in London back in 2001 by Kenneth Branagh, and headlined then by Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, this 20th anniversary production sees the latter taking on directorial duties and steering a riotously funny, high-energy remaster of a show that, perhaps now more than ever, brings exactly the calibre of uncynical, feel-good sunshine that we all need a strong dose of post-pandemic.
“Exactly the calibre of uncynical, feel-good sunshine that we all need a strong dose of post-pandemic.”
Thom (Thom Tuck) is one, somewhat dissatisfied, half of a flailing double act – rounded out by Dennis (Herdman… the actors keeping their actual names in true M&W fashion). His confidence in comedy bruised, he has his sights set on putting on a stage version of his decidedly serious (see: farcical) new play, ‘A Tight Squeeze For The Scarlet Pimple’, whilst Dennis is orchestrating an Eric and Ernie tribute act that he hopes will revitalise both their comedy fortunes and his partner’s malaise.
A Star Is… Shorn?: The original run of The Play What I Wrote, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring current director Sean Foley, featured numerous celebrity special guests in true ‘Morecambe and Wise’ style, including Academy Award Nominee Ralph Fiennes (pictured above, © Tristram Kenton)
Perhaps one of What I Wrote’s most ingenious moves – from both a creative and commercial perspective – was in channelling Morecambe and Wise’s trope of having mystery guest stars for their stage and screen specials. Previously, the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Kylie Minogue and even Sting have delighted audiences by being the ‘guest star’ persuaded to take part in the leading duo’s stage hijinks, and the current production has already struck the stagey zeitgeist, enticing audiences by asking ‘who will you see?’.
With an opening week that has already included Eastenders star Kara Tointon and Coronation Street and Loose Women stalwart Denise Welch, Foley and the team have shown they are truly pulling no punches as none other than ‘Loki’ himself, Avengers superstar Tom Hiddleston, took to the boards for What I Wrote’s press night… and even a handful of performances prior.
Perhaps most remarkable about Hiddleston’s – and presumably by proxy, all of the guest stars’ – appearance is the extent to which quips, wordplay and set pieces have been developed and attuned to his involvement particularly. From an extended gag about the repeat Avengers titles, ongoing fumbling of his surname (‘Tom Kidderminster’ being, perhaps expectedly, a local personal favourite) to more elaborate set ups such as a full Loki outfit and a physical bit involving stuntwork, this is no simple ‘insert name here’ celebrity flashbangery, and is instead an impressive testament to Foley and his team’s drive and talent to have crafted such an idiosyncratic extended cameo (which runs for the majority of the show’s Act II, no less).
“Perhaps most remarkable about Hiddleston’s appearance is the extent to which quips, wordplay and set pieces have been developed and attuned to his involvement particularly.”
Hiddleston proves characteristically charming, deadpan and self-deprecating, and an adept physical comedian to boot (“I’ve never done comedy…”). He’s tremendous fun and plenty game in a role which sees him doing everything from prancing around on stage in full Marie Antoinette-by-way-of-Widow-Twankey finery, exchanging faux flattering banter with lucky front row audience members, and even sardonically sporting a neck brace after being unceremoniously decapitated (fear not, ‘the doctors did a good job’ of sewing him back together).
But whilst there’s no denying the star wattage Hiddleston and his fellow special guests bring to the stage at the REP, The Play What I Wrote truly belongs to the immensely talented trio of performers who form its core cast. As put-upon electrician Arthur, Mitesh Soni is frequently hilarious as he disappears – and sometimes really doesn’t disappear – into a myriad of roles and bit parts as a handyman roped into a myriad of Dennis’ manipulations and deception. A recurring gag about him longing to play his Harmonica on stage to fulfil the (somewhat troubling) wishes of his (equally troubled) mother is particularly hilarious, showcasing Soni’s razor-sharp precision for comic timing and disarming character work, but in truth he is a scene-stealer throughout.
Herdman and Tuck get tremendous mileage – and a surprising degree of pathos towards the end, too – out of their ‘inspired by’ roles, channelling the frenetic madcap energy of the iconic duo whilst imbuing it with just enough flavour and relish of their own. Both are tremendous; it’s a blisteringly successful and engaging pairing that, coupled with whippet-smart writing from Foley, McColl (prepare the finest use of French artistocratic title ‘Comte’ you could wish for) and a handful of Eddie Braben classics, and the aforementioned organic immersion of its guest star that never feels remotely tacked on, presents a recipe for true comedy gold.
“If I hadn’t have gone into show business, I’d have been an engine driver,” Wise proclaims at the end of his ’66 chat with Auntie Beeb, “so we’ve a lot to thank show business for!”
It’s difficult to imagine a world, and certainly a British comedy scene, without the indelible mark left by Morecambe and Wise, so in reality it feels more fitting to admit that show business continues to this day to have a lot thank the duo for. Over half a Century on, their inimitable clownery, pitch-perfect nouse for character and slapstick genius continues to inspire and live on, and in the raucous, laugh-out-loud, post-modern madcap of The Play What I Wrote, it suggests it will be a long time still before their unique brand of comedy perfection will be forgotten or distilled.
Catch What I Wrote this Christmas and New Year season, not just for the tangible excitement of its mystery guest stars, with a very high bar having been readily set, but namely to watch some wizards of performance, writing and direction cast a comic spell on audiences with a true gem of a show that more than does its iconic muses proud.
Hiddleston and his fellow special guests lend it star wattage and charm aplenty, but in truth they are delicious toppings on an already delectable comedy cake. A modern ‘marvel’, lovingly brought back to the stage with heart and humour aplenty.