From The Express, 9 November 2001
The Weekend Starts Here - Gallows Humour: Theatre
THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2, 020 7369 1736
This new comedy is the oddest hybrid in London. It is a tribute to Morecambe and Wise and at the same time an original new work from The Right Size (consisting of Sean Foley and Seamus McColl), the funniest stage duo since The National Theatre Of Brent.
Their director for this is Kenneth Branagh, no less, and as a script writer they've roped in old Eddie Braben who penned Morecambe and Wise's finest hours. THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE is basically the story of two double acts - one living, one dead - and a cunning exploration of the spirit of joy that informs both. At first you worry that tall Sean Foley (Eric) and hairy Hamish McColl (Ernie) have missed a trick by being all arty and not doing the voices properly, but the boys slip in and out of character brilliantly as Ernie unleashes his dreadful play what he wrote about the French Revolution.
There's brilliant support from Toby Jones, the nerd who never gets a look in, and the essentials of the TV originals are all met.
Each week there will be a different, pompous guest star. We got Ralph Fiennes on the opening night - and terrific he was too. Eric thinks Ralph Fiennes is the brother of Parking Fiennes or Rolf Harris, he is not sure.
This hilarious act of comic cannibalism-mad slapstick brings sunshine to a gloomy West End.
Fans may argue it is not close enough, but it is undeniably fresh, vivid and rooted in the classy end of Fringe. Quite what the dwindling band of American tourists will make of it all, I haven't the faintest.
The International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, November 28, 2001
Comedy, Tragedy, Tribute
Shakespeare to Vaudeville, and a Touch of Nostalgia
Never underestimate the possibility of surprise in West End
comedies. I have to admit that I turned out to see "The Play What I Wrote" expecting
very little. Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, whose double-act The Right Size cabaret
team has been touring fringe theaters for quite some time, were about to take on
Morecambe Wise, and I wondered who needed yet another tribute show, given that in
this case the original duo is still readily available on tape.
Well, we do. After a sketchy first half, choreographed by the veteran
and ever-wonderful Irving Davies, in which they essentially do a medley of
their previous hit, the Right Size lads have wisely gone back to Eddie Braben, the original
"Eric and Ernie" TV writer, who has cobbled together one of their usual dramatic fiascos,
this one memorably entitled "A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple."
They have also enlisted, as did Eric and Ernie in their TV spectaculars,
some very classical assistance, notably Kenneth Branagh as director and (on the
first night at least) Ralph Fiennes as the guest star, along with a rubbery comic named Toby
Jones. The result at the Wyndham is the most anarchic, surreal and original comedy
to have hit the West End in ages. Made up of leftover bits of vaudeville, revue,
burlesque and sitcoms, this is a "Hellzapoppin" for the new century and an unofficial, brief
guide to stage and screen comedy in the last.
Some of the jokes are beyond-belief terrible and the entire production
seems to have been brought in for 50 quid counting salaries, but the same anarchic
spirit survives. And as for Fiennes, if Hollywood ever abandons him, he has a useful sideline
as a music-hall stooge.
(This is part of a longer review of the London theatre scene - RG)
Los Angeles Times - Calendar, Sunday, 27 January 2002
A One-Two Punch Line
A British Duo Re-creates Another Pair's Sketches While Showing How Two People Create Humor. Get it?
By Barbara Isenberg
Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, known collectively as the Right Size, can turn almost anything into comedy. Two balloonists crashing through a villager's roof in the far frozen north of England. Two middle-aged golfers who disappear behind a sofa. Two vaudevillians who can't leave the stage. Two complete strangers trapped in a bathroom together for 25 years.
But when it came to performing as Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, arguably the most famous of all British comedy duos, the Olivier Award-winning Right Size drew the line. They'd be impertinent but not impersonators. Besides, nobody could really re-create the comedy of the late Morecambe and Wise, who at their peak in 1977 reached one-half of the U.K.'s population with their Christmas show. Producer David Pugh, however, is not an easy man to turn down. He took Yasmina Reza's award-winning play "Art" around the world, shepherding 27 English language productions to more than 5 million people. Pugh thought if anyone could capture the spirit of Morecambe and Wise, it would be the Right Size. Plenty of meetings, workshops and rehearsals later, the Right Size is playing on the West End, reminding Britons of the comedy shows they loved and reminding Americans that Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Rowan and Martin and the Smothers Brothers had no monopoly on double acts.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and replete with such mystery guests as Ralph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor, "The Play What I Wrote" has the biggest advance for a play in West End history. Earlier this month, it received four nominations for the 2002 Olivier Awards.
With its silly songs, dances, ventriloquism and rat-infested dungeon, "The Play What I Wrote" simultaneously captures the comedy of both Morecambe and Wise and the Right Size. "While we're trying to evoke the comic spirit of Morecambe and Wise, the boys are very original artists in their own right," Branagh says. "We didn't want a replay or an exercise in nostalgia."
This is the 12th show in 14 years for "the boys," McColl, 39, and Foley, 37, two actor-comics who first met in 1987 when both were studying in Paris with the French comic Philipe Gaulier. For their first show a year later, they made all the costumes and props. And when the show's title was changed to "Que Sera" from "The Right Size," the latter phrase wound up as the company's name, McColl says, "since we liked everybody's aspirations to be the right size."
While "The Play What I Wrote" marks their third appearance on the West End, they are probably best known for their work in the Edinburgh Fringe and smaller venues here and in other countries. In India, where they performed in the dark for 40 minutes after a Calcutta theater's lighting went out, a critic referred to their work as "the most hilarious experience ever witnessed." A critic for Edinburgh's Scotsman newspaper once suggested they be canonized.
Onstage, Foley specializes in physical humor, while McColl plays straight man, worrying aloud that he isn't funny enough. McColl's character, who is also named Hamish, has made a scratchy record album on which he recorded the one laugh he got years ago. But even as Foley's character, who is also named Sean, plays that record for the audience, his ribbing is still more benign than mean.
Although the Right Size reflects the English music hall tradition that spawned Morecambe and Wise, its humor is in many ways universal. While there are such trademark gags in "The Play What I Wrote" as Morecambe and Wise's catch phrases, twisted eyeglasses and funny skip dances, the theater is filled with foreigners and young people who have no idea who Morecambe and Wise were. "You might wonder about the eyeglasses or things like that," McColl says, "but you're not going to get robbed of a sense of understanding the piece."
Branagh agrees, adding that "if you find people falling over funny, no subtitles required. Partly because of their comedy inflection, partly because of the way the boys play it, even if you don't get the point of the joke, you can still get the intent from the good-hearted, good-natured delivery. The audience feels safe."
It's no doubt similar to what families here felt watching Morecambe and Wise's television specials, which ran from 1961 to 1983. Moving from vaudeville to television, Morecambe and Wise offered not just original puns, pratfalls, song and dance, but a series of inane comedy sketches featuring such "mystery guests" as Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, John Gielgud, TV anchors and government officials. Even the royal family would delay Christmas dinner until the
annual TV show ended.
Pugh and his family watched them too, and several years ago, the 38-year-old theatrical producer began acquiring rights to the Morecambe and Wise material. When he saw the Right Size's 1998 "Do You Come Here Often?," an Olivier Award-winning play about two men stuck in a bathroom for 25 years, he immediately called "the boys" and took them to lunch.
"The boys" weren't convinced. "We said no," McColl recalls, "because in this country, Morecambe and Wise are an institution which were supremely loved, still are remembered very fondly and repeated a lot on television." Neither a bio play nor impersonating them sounded right either, adds Foley. "And with their relationship to the British public, people would just say, 'Well,
you're not Morecambe and Wise, and get off the stage, please.'"
But Foley and McColl too were fans, so they kept looking for ways to bring them back. "When we hit on the idea of seeing them through the eyes of another double act (like us)," McColl says, "that was really the key. After that, we were able to escape the idea of impersonation and address the wider issue of double acts in general: how they operate, who does what, who thinks he's funny, who thinks he's more important, who thinks he's less important. We've worked together a lot, so it became something we were able to personalize."
They set about "plundering this enormously rich treasure trove of Morecambe and Wise material," McColl continues, "and sort of cherry-picking what we felt best suited the contemporary audience, our sense of humor and the shape of the piece." Pugh provided funds for a workshop and the hiring of a third actor, Toby Jones, who plays such roles during the show as producer Pugh and the "half-girl, half-kipper" Daryl Hannah of "Splash" fame.
Having decided they would benefit from outside direction, Pugh brought them together with Branagh. Pugh had worked for Robert Fox, producer of Branagh's 1982 London theatrical debut in "Another Country," and recalled how the actor would do Morecambe impressions backstage. Also aware that Branagh had an excellent Rolodex for potential mystery guests, Pugh called and suggested the actor-director meet with Foley and McColl.
The team hit it off and began work. A script developed, drawing on improvisation by McColl, Foley and Jones. Eddie Braben, 80, who wrote for Morecambe and Wise, also contributed some new gags, McColl says, "as well as gave his blessing to our putting a retread on some of the old ones."
"The Play What I Wrote" has the audience laughing from its opening scene: two guys standing up in a bed singing about two guys standing up in a bed singing. Early on, the versatile Jones appears as a gun-toting member of the "Morecambe and Wise Appreciation Society (Military Wing)," and there are show-stopping moments for chicken impersonations and other sublimely ridiculous skits. In one of the show's best and most poignant routines, McColl is consoled about his ability to get laughs—the delayed laugh, the laugh of anticipation, and the most sophisticated and no doubt valuable of them all, "the inaudible laugh."
The show got off to a slow start, with very low advances. But once it opened and received unanimous raves from critics, says Pugh, box office went from a $31,460 advance to $730,730 in 72 hours, toppling a record held by Alan Bennett's "The Lady in the Van" with Maggie Smith. The show recouped its investment in eight weeks, adds Pugh, and advances now stand at more than $858,000.
McColl takes particular pride in the audience not being able to see "the join" between their material and that of Morecambe and Wise. "The trick of the show is that so much of our stuff is written à la Morecambe and Wise," Foley adds. "On first glance, people say, 'They did that 20 years ago on TV,' and we say,'We just wrote it six months ago.'"
Inspired by Morecambe and Wise's playlets, "The Play What I Wrote" also features an overwritten, overacted play in period costume. Each evening, an invited guest takes a role in the Bastille scene of "A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple," heralded as the first of 72 plays penned by McColl's character to be produced.
Each guest enters to a sort of roast-cum-introduction. Minnie Driver, for instance, was greeted with the question "Exactly what have you done?" And when she replied that she'd been in 20 films, Foley inquired if any of them had been developed. The Right Size is joined in the Bastille scene by Jones, a rubber-faced actor just over 5 feet tall who writes many of his lines. With Fiennes, the first mystery guest, Jones appeared in bandages as "The English Patient" and came onstage talking about the desert. With McGregor, he appeared in a kilt and
sang songs from the film "Moulin Rouge." Mystery guest Branagh was introduced as "the man who thinks he's William Shakespeare," after which Jones came on dressed as a knight, ranting about "the unleashing of the dogs of war—the St. Bernards, the Dalmatians."
Branagh says actors have called him to appear in the show, and Pugh adds that nobody has turned him down yet. "We pay them £500 ($715) a performance," Pugh says, "and they all want to do it. The Evening Standard said last week that of the 100 most chic things to be in 2002, No. 1 was to be a guest star in 'The Play What I Wrote.'"
U.S. audiences will possibly be able to judge for themselves. "Do You Come Here Often?" played at P.S. 122, a performance space on New York's Lower East Side, and Pugh says he's now speaking with producers about bringing this show to America as well.
"Morecambe and Wise did six spots on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' and were a big success," Pugh says. "They were about to come to America to perform when Eric had his first heart attack and that stopped them. We'd love to go to New York, and we'd love to do Los Angeles. Hollywood is a perfect place to get guest stars."
Barbara Isenberg, whose latest book is "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," is a regular contributor to Calendar.