Edinburgh Fringe 2014
A moving tribute to the greatest double act to come out of the UK in the 20th Century that manages to be both hilarious and touching.
It’s forty years since Morecambe and Wise were in their heyday so it’s no surprise to see so many of the bus pass brigade puffing their way up the stairs to the Gilded Balloon’s Turret auditorium. The surprise is that a cardiac arrest didn’t do for a few in the way that it did, eventually, for both halves of what was arguably the best double act the UK produced in the 20th Century.
Back in the 1970s, the timing of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show determined when you shoved the turkey into the oven as audiences in excess of twenty five million tuned in and stars from every walk of life queued up to make guest appearances.
Fresh from a successful run in London’s West End, creators and performers Jonty Stephens (Morecambe) and Ian Ashpitel take us through the careers of the duo but, in a nice twist, are looking back at events following their entry through what it would be nice to assume are the pearly gates. All your old favourites are in there, around which there is some neatly worked badinage that keeps the story ticking along.
Routines that seem, at this distance, so innocent and gentle, remain hilarious even though you know what’s coming next. Most of the audience were joining in the lines of the famous “Grieg’s Piano Concerto” sketch which was, of course, originally performed with Little Ern on the baton, not the celebrated conductor “Mr Andrew Preview” that most remember from the Christmas show in the 1970’s. And is there anyone who doesn’t know the line following the police car siren speeding past the couple’s flat window?
The set of hospital bed (which naturally turns into the double bed so redolent of the TV series) and couch plus coffee table create the right ambience and this is cleverly spun round part way through the show to reveal those famous M&W curtains in front of which Ashpitel and Stephens bring the show to a conclusion with a series of running gags that are amongst the best from the Braben pen.
But it wasn’t all jokes and wisecracks. The tragic, early death of Morecambe is poignantly covered, particularly the anger that Wise felt at the premature final curtain of a colleague of some forty years, a loss from which he arguably never recovered. Whilst Wise was not afraid of hard work, Morecambe was well known as a driven comedian and was both a heavy smoker and a worrier, which must have hastened his end.
Undertaking what is, in effect, a tribute show like this is always going to be a risk, but for creators and performers Jonty Stephens (Morecambe) and Ian Ashpitel, it has been one worth taking. Stephens and Ashpitel both manage to create a believable physical impression but it’s their mannerisms and facial expressions that really stand out. And, with the height difference between the two just about the same as that of the original act, all the trademark physical gags (face slapping, wig jokes and references to short, fat hairy legs) work. Stephens and Ashpitel inhabit the persona of M&W and have a clear rapport with their audience, as evidenced by the off-piste response to an unscripted interjection from the audience. We went round the houses for about thirty seconds, in character, in what was one of the funniest moments in the show.
Morecambe and Wise’s work ethic and attention to the most minute details is well documented, especially the “ad libs”, which were rehearsed and rehearsed to create that trademark spontaneity. Stephens and Ashpitel have put in a similar shift in on this show with their staccato exchanges timed to the millisecond. It’s a gloriously funny eighty minutes but one that also contains some very tender moments.
Nothing can replace Morecambe and Wise, but this comes pretty close. A must see for all devotees.