I didn't know what to expect when I sat down to watch The Play What I Wrote. On one level, that was the state of mind I was supposed to be in since each performance of the play features a mystery guest star with a walk-on part in the second half. But the real reason I was a bit apprehensive is because I'm not a huge fan of Morecambe and Wise and, as I understood it, The Play What I Wrote is some sort of tribute to them.
I needn't have worried. It was a hugely enjoyable experience from the first moment to the last. Indeed, on a pleasure-per-minute basis, The Play What I Wrote offers the best value for money in the West End. Admittedly, most of the dialogue does sound as if it's been lifted, verbatim, from Morecambe and Wise but for some reason it's much funnier than the original. The laughter in the auditorium was almost continuous for the full two hours and fifteen minutes.
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise are impersonated by Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, two British comedians who've been honing their own double act since 1989. The conceit of the play is that Foley and McColl have been hired to perform in a Morecambe and Wise tribute show by David Pugh, the West End impresario who, in real life, is the producer of The Play What I Wrote. However, McColl wants to strike out on his own as a serious playwright and the only way Foley can persuade him to appear in the tribute show is to pretend that they've really been hired to perform A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple, an original work by McColl. Consequently, Foley gets his friend from the local pub, brilliantly played by Toby Jones, to impersonate David Pugh and dupe McColl into thinking his masterpiece is going to be put on. In reality, of course, A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple is a work of theatrical doggerel that no serious producer would touch with a duelling sword. If this all sounds like the plot of an episode of Morecambe and Wise, that's entirely deliberate. The whole play, not just the tribute show, is an affectionate homage to Britain's best-loved comedians.
I'm not quite sure why The Play What I Wrote is funnier than Morecambe and Wise--and no doubt there are some die-hard fans who'd disagree with me. One reason may be that Sean Foley and Hamish McColl have simply plodded their way through every single episode of Morecambe and Wise and hand-picked the best jokes. (One of the credited writers on The Play What I Wrote is Eddie Braben, a veteran British comedy writer who worked with the famous duo for 14 years.) Another may be that simply watching Foley and McColl impersonate the two comics is in itself very funny. Foley is slightly better at Morecambe than McColl is at Wise, but they're both talented mimics.
A third reason--the most compelling, I think--is the presence of Toby Jones who, as Foley's friend from the pub, impersonates a number of people throughout the play, including the actress Daryl Hannah. Jones, who looks like a cross between Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, is an almost supernaturally gifted comic: he only has to appear on stage to have the audience in stitches. For me, the highlight of the play was his take off of the Wyndham's theatre manager. His effort to dredge up some semblance of authority from his unprepossessing frame somehow managed to embody all the theatre managers I've met since I started doing this job a month ago. It was worth the £35--and I actually paid to see this--for that moment alone.
No review of the play would be complete without mentioning the two celebrities involved: the director, Kenneth Branagh, and, on the night I saw it at least, Ewan McGreggor, the mystery guest star. If the West End is going to ride out the current slump it's going to need the patronage of stars of this calibre and this is precisely the kind of work they should be supporting. In spite of relying almost exclusively on recycled material, The Play What I Wrote manages to be brilliantly original. I strongly urge the BBC to make a film of it and broadcast it on Christmas Day. The Windsors will be watching along with everyone else.
Toby Young's account of the five years he spent in New York, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, has just been published by Little Brown. You can read an extract on his website www.tobyyoung.co.uk.