The Play What I Wrote – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writers: Hamish McColl, Sean Foley and, of course, Eddie Braben

Director: Sean Foley

It’s over 35 years since Eric Morecambe’s untimely death at the age of 58 ended arguably the greatest comedy double act ever. Even so, Morecambe and Wise remain popular, with repeats and compilations appearing regularly on television still, introducing new generations to their brand of childlike humour.

And it’s nearly twenty years since a collaboration between Morecambe’s son, Gary, Hamish McColl and Sean Foley gave rise to The Play What I Wrote directed by Kenneth Branagh. In that incarnation it was nominated for four Olivier Awards, winning two: Best Comedy and Best Supporting Actor for Toby Jones. Since then, Foley has carved out a career as a successful director. Now, of course, he is Artistic Director at Birmingham REP with this season being the first under his leadership, having been delayed by Covid 19. Foley directs this production.

It has to said right from the off that The Play What I Wrote is a joy from start to finish, with laughs coming thick and fast. Thom Tuck and Dennis Herdman play a family-friendly comedy double act who feel in the doldrums. Thom is disappointed that he never gets the laughs and is trying his hand at serious playwriting. With 72 plays under his belt, the duo is finally to perform his masterpiece, A Tight Squeeze for The Scarlet Pimple. Unknown to him, this is an attempt by Dennis to set them up as a Morecambe and Wise tribute, leading to disagreements as the two men’s ambitions collide. In the second half, we see Thom’s play what he wrote produced with a mystery guest star each night: at press night it was Tom Hiddleston. And as in the Morecambe and Wise shows, Hiddleston is the butt of good-natured jokes, entering into the spirit of silliness wholeheartedly, sending himself and his screen persona up mercilessly.

While there is a superficial physical resemblance to Eric and Ernie and a few of their catchphrases slip in, this is most definitely not a tribute act – indeed, in the programme notes, Foley suggests that 99.7% of the material presented is original. Influenced by the masters, there’s silly humour, physical sight gags and more, all done in affectionate homage to Morecambe and Wise. And that does seem to be the key: everything in this production is done with love for the great men. Choreography from Ian West ensures that the physical comedy is fast-moving and fluid. Tuck and Herdman are seasoned comedy professionals themselves with immaculate comedy timing ensuring that each joke lands. Supporting them is Mitesh Soni as a Brummie Arthur (originally the hapless harmonica player from the later BBC series and butt of the running joke, ‘Not Now, Arthur’). Soni also takes on every other role, as the promise of a spot playing the harmonica leads him to ever more outrageous parodies of industry insiders as Dennis and he try to persuade Thom the act has a future.

Overall, however, this is like lounging in a hot tub with a fine wine: while it may have been a safe choice for Foley in his first REP season, it’s comfortable fun from start to finish with belly laughs flowing pretty much non-stop and the perfect antidote to dark winter evenings.

Runs until 1 January 2022 and touring

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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