Writers: Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen
Director: Emily Burns
Reopening the Noel Coward Theatre, Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen’s comedy play The Comeback is easily the most aptly named show in town. Its plot is also surprisingly fitting as two young comedians try to usurp their seniors just as The Comeback has taken its chance to temporarily displace Dear Evan Hansen on St Martin’s Lane while the established show is prevented from reopening – art imitating life.
Warm-up act Alex and Ben are on stage in Diddlington when they have a crisis of confidence about their performance and decide to resurrect some older material in the next show. Meanwhile on stage, veteran comedy stars Sid and Jim tire of their sketches and decide to try some new material desperate for a comeback. But with rumours of a Hollywood producer in the audience, the young rivals grasp their chance for a big break.
Ashenden and Owen’s 75-minute show is a celebration of the more innocent days of stand-up comedy, exalting the end of the pier double-acts of yesteryear. The conceit is that the performers play both the young hopefuls Alex and Ben as well as the doddery Sid and Jim distinguished by Northern accents, using plenty of props, some sparkly jackets and a red curtain that demarcates front and backstage.
This is both a stand-up show in which the performers speak directly to the audience who double as the Diddlington auditorium and as meta confidants for Alex when planning some of his earlier pranks. The show itself is very silly, drawing on slapstick, visual humour such as props being passed behind the long curtain, and physical comedy while building to a high farce conclusion as all four characters run around the stage, appearing from cupboards and crannies.
Whether all the gags (not jokes) land may depend on your sense of humour – a classic groan-inducer includes Sid misunderstanding the meaning of iPhone and substituting it with a regular phone and some wordplay “aye phone”. There is a little audience participation for which one man in the second row communally obliges and a guest appearance from a well-known personality (an actor and presenter at the press performance) who jokes that he’s not up to much at the moment.
Ashenden and Owen create a warm confederacy with the audience straight away and both are hugely likeable in their dual roles. Framing their show as a stand-up routine develops a connection quite quickly, and while the plot is subservient to the sketch-based comedy, the show slowly takes its shape and energy from the unpredictable Noises Off-style chaos.
The Comeback is about the need for comedians old or young to find and retain their audience. It isn’t consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious but it is entertaining, revelling in its silliness and the power of the great comedy partnership. And at just the right length, it has allowed Ashenden and Owen to grasp their own chance to be part of theatre’s big comeback.
Runs until 3 January 2021