Writer: Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens
Director: Daniel Clarkson
At one stage, Morecambe and Wise were a more popular festive double act than mistletoe and wine or turkey and cranberry sauce. More than 20 million viewers tuned in to their 1977 Christmas special on the BBC. They are much more than a part of comedy history though. Those famous television shows are still repeated today, their classic sketches clock up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and their influence can be seen everywhere from TikTok to Ant and Dec. It’s a shame then that Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens latest outing as the comedy pairing feels a little tired.
The setting is instantly familiar. That bed and that sofa. The vintage radio and telephone. A closed red curtain just crying out for the neck grab gag. A bedecked Christmas tree surrounded by presents – one of the few nods to the festive season in the show, despite its title. Then our heroes appear and for a few split seconds it does feel like being sat watching the real thing. Sadly, the feeling doesn’t quite last.
Ashpitel and Stephens have the impressions down to a tee. The physicality, the glass wiggling, the face slapping. All the ticks and tricks are there. However, the ad-libs and asides never quite feel spontaneous and the classic opening monologue jokes fall a little flat. You can watch the original duo again and again and laugh anew each time despite knowing exactly what’s coming. Not so here. A TV studio audience will have been fully ‘warmed up’ before the main act but a theatre show does not have that luxury and the energy quickly dissipates from the room.
This isn’t the first time this pair have trod the boards as the famous double act. A short sketch became a short show in 2012 and an Olivier award nomination soon followed. They’ve toured the country numerous times and gained the trust of the Morecambe and Wise fan base and families. This show does feel like a brilliant cover band taking on the greatest hits once more because it worked pretty well last time. It’s a bit hit and miss.
The hits are superb. A bongo’s routine feels both classic and fresh, the bed sketch is laugh-out-loud funny and it is a real privilege to see the paper bag gag in person. The warmth and understanding between Ashpitel and Stephens is genuinely beautiful to watch. You can’t fake that chemistry and the pair are clearly born to do this. Just as the originals would bring on a famous guest to become the butt of the joke, Sinéad Wall gives a fabulous turn as a singer unaware of the balloon animal madness going on behind her. She deserves that cheque in the post.
The musical numbers don’t all come off though. While Positive Thinking is nicely choreographed, Winter Wonderland feels a bit shoehorned in without enough jokes. There’s a nod to the classic kitchen breakfast sketch but it’s so beloved you probably need to commit fully or leave it out.
Morecambe and Wise, of course, were never really a duo. The audience were the third, vital member of the act. This audience really runs with that idea. Anticipating lines, laughing ahead of the jokes in the André Previn sketch and completing the punchline of the ambulance siren gag. It all feels a bit panto and we all know people either love or hate pantomime.
No one will ever repeat the magic of Morecambe and Wise. Ashpitel and Stephens, however, give us an enjoyable tribute and come pretty close. What do you think of it so far? It’s not rubbish but the polite laughter is probably a sign people are left wanting more.
Runs until 12 December 2021