Writers: Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel
Director: Daniel Clarkson
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Be honest: some Christmas traditions are puzzling and do not meet the criteria of peace on earth and goodwill to all. Dark winter nights prompt ghost stories and an interest in elaborate murder-mysteries. One tradition that is easy to understand, however, is the continuing appeal of the comedy of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise during the festive season. Morecambe and Wise were hardcore professionals whose comedic skills had been honed in the glory days of variety theatre to the extent that they could achieve the most demanding routines with apparent nonchalance. When linked to inspired scripts by the likes of Eddie Braben the duo were unstoppable and pretty much set the template for the ‘Christmas Special’ – in 1977 28million people tuned in to watch their annual TV show.
Some comedians are admired for their work but Morecambe and Wise were loved and this level of affection is apparent in An Evening of Eric & Ern at Christmas developed by Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel based upon the writings of Braben and the work of the duo. The festive aspect of the show is limited – there is the occasional reference to the season and a Christmas tree onstage but one gets the impression it could be staged at any time of year with little change to the content.
The Christmas Specials were mainly famous for elaborate spoof song and dance or musical routines. An Evening of Eric & Ern at Christmas features one of the most acclaimed – based upon Andre Previn trying to conduct a performance – but largely concentrates on the material the duo used to link the various sketches together. This is Morecambe and Wise going back to basics – a pair of friends standing before a red curtain and bouncing gags back and forth.
Vocalist Rebecca Neale stands in for the various stars that made guest appearances on the show selflessly allowing herself to be humiliated in the name of comedy. Neale’s heartfelt rendition of ‘ Send in the Clowns’ while apparently unaware that Stephens and Ashpitel, in full clown costumes, are goofing around behind her back is a wonderful sample of what guests on the actual show endured for the entertainment of delighted audiences.
The atmosphere of the live theatre environment ensures the show does not become just a nostalgic representation of well-loved routines. The sketches have been tweaked to make reference to contemporary developments and the area in which the venue is situated. All of the famous punchlines are skillfully woven into the narrative and Ian Ashpitel, who plays Ernie Wise, even has to remark on patrons jumping the gun and mouthing the lines before they are spoken on stage. This may be the first time that younger audience members understand why a cough leads older people to respond with a cry of ‘Arsenal!’
The physical and vocal resemblance between Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel and Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise is uncanny. Ashpitel, as Ernie Wise, is the calm centre standing solidly with a superficial sense of smugness in the face of Jonty Stephens’s wisecracking, know-it-all version of Eric Morecambe. With most tribute acts there is a sense of compromise but Stephens and Ashpitel push to the limit to achieve authenticity.
An Evening of Eric & Ern at Christmas is a worthy tribute to masters of comedy and a joyful treat for the festive season.
Runs until 6th January 2019 | Image: Contributed