A tribute to some of the great post-war double acts, this fictitious biography culminates in a live show that is genuinely thrilling. A simple tale simply told, if only they weren’t so young…
Flanagan and Allan, Morecombe and Wise, Reeves and Mortimer: to this pantheon of prat-falling pairs let there be added the names Douglas and Adams (not to be confused by the more myopic among you for the “Hitch-hikers’ Guide…” author), whose twenty-five year career culminated in their sell-out 1972 summer season, prior to rehearsals for a twelfth TV series, when Douglas… well, let’s not spoil it for the children. Suffice it to say, fans of Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper will hardly be surprised by this entertaining and genuinely funny play’s final scene.
The play relies heavily upon the mythos of other acts, as we flashback from the final weekend of that fateful 1972 season to various significant moments in our droll duo’s career. There’s the initial meeting between failing stand-up Arthur Douglas (Martyn Grahame) and career-minded heckler Eddie Adams (Sean Hanlon) at a dingy northern club in the late 40s, the introduction of replacement backing-singer/dancer Joanne Spencer, with whom Eddie becomes smitten, and a recollection of the night spare wheel-cum-comedy stooge Ronnie Stature joined the party.
However it is the build-up to the final night, and the act itself, that provides the meat of this particular nostalgia-feast as the neurotic, heavy drinking Douglas tries to hide his poor health from the calm if bumbling Adams. Despite all their years together, these are two men who are not comfortable with revealing deep feelings. In many ways, the act is a friendship and the friendship is an act. Despite their mutual affection, they never truly communicate, so when Douglas blurts out a story about his father on a chat-show, it takes both him and his partner by surprise. The men also have other partners, the women in their lives, and their conflicting needs and perspectives is just one of the many aspects that takes this play beyond simply being a comedic equivalent of Mamet’s “A Life In The Theatre”.
All of the above is foreplay to the main act: the stand-up itself, and here neither Grahame nor Hanlon disappoint. Suddenly all comparisons to other acts slip away as the pair run through an antic ten to fifteen minutes of part-scripted, part improvised comedy gold, consisting of manic puns, violent slapstick, failed magic acts and abortive musical numbers that take full advantage of Grahame’s wild-eyed energy and Hanlon’s audience-friendly confidence. It is an exhilarating spectacle that would stand the test of being performed out of context at any stand-up club in the country.
As mentioned above, the play’s denouement will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of modern British comedians, and Grahame (who also wrote the script) throws himself into the symptoms of his illness with the same sweaty intensity as he does the later stand-up, where perhaps more subtlety might have been in order. Certainly given the crippling nature of the attack just prior to going on stage, it’s a wonder that he makes it to his feet let alone the footlights. In my view, the play could have benefitted from more of the flashback material, to see the pair on their way up, rather than the instant success they appear to have plucked from nowhere. Given that similar ground was covered by Victoria Wood’s TV play “Eric and Ernie” earlier this year, Grahame may have felt this could go without saying: I’m not so sure.
This is a young play by a young writer with a young cast and, at times, that youth does get in the way of the play’s authenticity. It’s hard to believe that the central characters have reached 25, let along been performing for that many years, while their domestic partners positively glow with vitality. However, it would be curmudgeonly to dismiss a show simply because there aren’t enough bags beneath the actors’ eyes: after all, a couple of months spent touring may well see to that for them. Martyn Grahame, the rest of the cast, and directors Lee James Rosher and George Holliday have combined to create a show full of heart that manages to avoid cheap sentiment. Long may this double act run.