Newsday.com, 16 March 2003
Caught in The Draft - 'The Play What I Wrote,' a Hit Comedy from London, Is a Play What They Love to Be In
By Blake Green
The beehive of activity on stage at the Lyceum Theatre has spilled into the
empty rows of seats below. It's the final rehearsal before preview
performances commence for "The Play What I Wrote," a daft hit comedy that's
transferred from London to Broadway, and the director and the celebrity
guest are conferring in whispers.
Standing is the director, Kenneth Branagh, someone often spied in
Shakespearean tights in his numerous movie roles, but today wearing the
cognoscenti's ubiquitous, baggy, all-black togs. Seated is the guest, Roger
Moore, still sporting his dapper black overcoat, silk muffler and leather
gloves - his own variation on the actor who came in from the cold - although
he's soon to don tights and the rest of a more-than-slightly-ridiculous
French Revolution period costume.
"Hysterical fun," the ever-suave Moore describes this gig, his blue eyes
That night's audience would first see Moore in an elegant dressing gown more
in keeping with the 007 image James Bond lovers of a certain era are bound
to remember. He'll be appearing for the next couple of performances, to be
followed by Liam Neeson, Zoe Caldwell and - well, the revolving list of
guest performers is supposed to be a surprise.
In London, "The Play What I Wrote" became something of a must-appear for
actors from Moore to Ralph Fiennes to Sting to Daniel Radcliffe. (Harry
Potter himself felt right at home with both Branagh - who played Gilderoy
Lockhart in "The Chamber of Secrets" - and Toby Jones, the voice of Dobby
the House Elf in "Chamber" who recently won an Olivier for his wacky
performance in "The Play.")
Hamish McColl and Sean Foley are the stars of this show, two silly Brits
who've been performing as the comedic team of the Right Size for more than a
decade (they appeared Off-Broadway in "Do You Come Here Often" in 1999).
They, like Jones, are still a bit giddy about exchanging lines on stage with
their famous guests.
"Roger Moore was my James Bond," says the rubber-limbed Foley, whose
hairstyle manages to run the gamut from bald to brush cut. "That I'm on
stage with James Bond is unbelievable. And who'd have thought we'd be taking
the mick out of Ralph Fiennes," he crows, using the British slang for
"Sting was like the wallpaper of my childhood," exclaims the zany,
gnome-like Jones, whose role includes impersonating a number of famous
people, including whoever's appearing in the show. (As Moore, he sports a
safari suit, a style that's slipped out of vogue, probably even to the
relief of the stately actor who helped make it popular.)
David Pugh, the British impresario who's one of the play's producers, says
the idea of having mystery celebrity guests came from the format of the
BBC's popular variety shows hosted by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, a
legendary British comedy duo who were the inspiration for "The Play What I
"Everyone clamored to appear on that," he recalls of television shows
watched by literally millions of viewers in the '70s. "Glenda Jackson, Tom
Jones, even Prime Minister Harold Wilson." At the moment, guests for "The
Play What I Wrote" are restricted to show business figures, although if the
show's a hit here, there's talk of expanding the guest list into sports,
rock and, yes, politics. "But we won't be asking Mr. Bush, because he's too
busy," jokes Pugh, whose own depiction by Jones in the London show has been
replaced by "Mike Tickles," a play on Mike Nichols, the show's best-known
producer on this side of the Atlantic.
Many guests are invited, some have even volunteered their services after
they've seen the show. "We pay them all $1,000 a performance," says Pugh,
"nobody's treated differently" - even if there is a gag in the script about
the possibility of securing Robert Goulet "for $3 more."
While "a sense of humor about oneself" is definitely important, "overtly
comedic people are less effective" than straight actors, explains Branagh,
who's been a guest himself. "What's particularly delicious is if the actor
is seen as rather serious. Then the fun of our pricking their pretend vanity
seems to be especially enjoyed by the audience."
Although he grouses that he was "treated mercilessly" by the cast he
affectionately refers to as "the boys" when he appeared, Branagh promises
that the intent toward guests is "benign fun. Nothing at all like a roast."
"A big part of British humor is the cheekiness of it," says Foley.
Moore, who played the mystery guest on more than a dozen occasions in
London, flew from his home in Switzerland to be first up in the America
production. "I'd been in films for so long that I was nervous at first that
if someone coughed in the audience I'd stop, thinking they'd shoot the scene
again," he jokes about his return to the stage.
Part of the pleasure of coming here, Moore says, is the delicate matter of
his last Broadway appearance. "That would be 'A Pin to See the Peepshow,'
which opened on Sept. 17, 1953, and closed on Sept. 17, 1953. So this time
I'll do more performances than I did in '53." And he expects to return.
The loosely formed story of "The Play What I Wrote" concerns whether a comic
duo should stick to its usual tricks or do what McColl's prickly, sad-eyed
character prefers: produce one of his ghastly plays, a French drama (all the
better to get in a few cracks about the currently unpopular French).
Celebrity guests co-star in this play-with-the-play titled "A Tight Squeeze
for the Scarlet Pimple."
There's a drag aspect for both male guests, who morph into Marie Antoinette,
and females, who become Fat Friar Bugeye. "Jerry Hall," recalls Pugh, "took
one look at the fat costume and said, 'This could be the end of my career.'"
On the contrary, it may have given it a boost. Pugh says Fiennes later
thanked him for the chance to expose his lunatic side, "that otherwise he'd
never have gotten to do that comedy ['Maid in Manhattan'] with J-Lo."
New York Daily News, 16 March 2003
Bringing Us Sunshine
'The Play What I Wrote,' a Hit Comedy from London, Is a Play What They Love to Be In
By Ellen Tumposky
LONDON - The stars of "The Play What I Wrote" are betting that British humor
can survive a transatlantic crossing. But just to be on the safe side,
Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, lounging around their London producer's
office, are tossing out some one-liners that might work on Broadway.
Explaining the play's premise, McColl says his character - also called
Hamish - has left England because "he wants to be the next important
playwright in America." "He wants to be the next Shaquille O'Neal," deadpans
Foley. McColl glares at him. "People often say that double acts are like
marriages," he mutters. "That's absolute nonsense, isn't it, darling?" says Foley.
McColl and Foley - known professionally as the Right Size - can't stop
working for laughs, especially now when they're taking their act on the
road. Their London hit is in previews at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway,
where it opens on March 30. They're hoping that a Broadway battered by the post-Sept. 11 downturn and the musicians' strike will find this confection the right show for tough
times - though as Mike Nichols, who is co-producing in New York, says, "It's
always the right moment for very funny. It always makes you happy, it always
reminds you of what you love in your life."
The play, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is about a double act in crisis.
Hamish (McColl) - a straight man so unfunny that he has a beatup recording
of the one laugh he got years ago - has come to New York to pursue his
Desperate to keep him in the act, Sean (Foley) books the Lyceum. They
perform Hamish's ludicrous play, "A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple,"
with the help of Toby Jones (the voice of Dobby the house elf in "Harry
Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"), who plays a variety of roles. Every
night there is a secret special guest star.
The show was a sellout in London, helped by guest stars like Ralph Fiennes -
playing the Count of Toblerone - who showed surprising flair for comedy, and
crackling direction by Branagh. "Everybody thinks of Ken Branagh as walking around in doublet and hose in his kitchen reciting Shakespeare," says McColl. "He's actually extremely
skilled at shaping comedy."
"The Play What I Wrote" had a particular resonance with the West End
audience because it is a tribute to one of Britain's best-loved comic acts,
Morecambe and Wise. Their 1970s TV shows, in which Eric Morecambe clowned to
Ernie Wise's straight man, invariably included a silly playlet "written" by
Wise, a famous guest star whom Morecambe often mistook for a drunk wandering
onstage, and their vaudeville-style closing song, "Bring Me Sunshine."
"It was a small guy, Ernie, dominated by a big guy, Eric," says Brian
Highley, director of the British Comedy Society. "Every male in Britain
associated himself with one or the other."
The New York production is playing down Morecambe and Wise because New York
audiences wouldn't get the reference.
"It's not like referring to Desi and Lucy here," says Nichols. Still, when
he saw the show in London, Nichols felt confident its humor could work in
"I'm American, I laughed a lot, why shouldn't there be others like me?" he
says. "A lot of it is wonderful physical humor which knows no country. The
nature of the people doing it is so utterly sunny."
Himself once part of a legendary double act with Elaine May, Nichols worked
with McColl and Foley at his Martha's Vineyard home last summer to doctor
the show for Broadway and is lining up the guest stars, though he won't name
"We have stars who like the idea and are surprised in their ability to do
silly things," says David Pugh, who produced "The Play What I Wrote" in
London. "They all get $1,000 a performance. In London, they got £500 -
they've had a raise because it's Broadway! And a cab to and from the theater
- that's it."
Among the West End show's guests were Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Sting,
who each had only a couple of hours' rehearsal time.
Foley, 38, and McColl, 40, a double act for 15 years, have appeared in New
York before, when their Olivier Award-winning entertainment, "Do You Come
Here Often?" - about two men stuck in a bathroom together for 25 years -
played at the Off-Off-Broadway venue P.S. 122.
They think American audiences will bring their collective memory of
vaudeville to the experience.
"Morecambe and Wise were the last throes of English music hall, and
vaudeville and music hall were so similar," says Foley. "Our aim is to get
people laughing and keep them laughing for two hours. When they get out,
they'll think, what on Earth was I laughing at?"
"Funny is funny - it doesn't matter what accent you've got," says Don Ward,
founder of the Comedy Store, which showcases the caustic, topical standup
that is popular in Britain today.
British humor, he suggests, has its roots in troubled times. "The ability to
laugh at yourself and be happy to do it - that's what it's all about. World
wars have done it to us: You've got to come out laughing."
New York Post Online, 20 March 2003
By Barbara Hoffman
He's battled evil in "Schindler's List," "Star Wars" and
"The Crucible" - but Liam Neeson has never seemed braver than last week on
In a hoop skirt and blond wig, the brawny star sang and shuffled about in a
jig before heading off to the guillotine in "The Play What I Wrote."
He's not the only big star to lose his head in the comedy - audiences never
know who may appear as the Mystery Guest Star in Act II.
Roger Moore and Nathan Lane have already turned up at Broadway's Lyceum
Theater, where the play opens March 30.
In London, Sting, Kylie Minogue, Twiggy, Minnie Driver and three dozen
others made a mockery of themselves in the play, about a comedy team whose
straight man yearns to write a serious play for a big star.
It's clearly not about the money - guests are paid just $1,000 per show.
"If you're going to do something in the theater, you have to plan it a year
in advance," Neeson told The Post.
"For this [show], you rehearse Tuesday and you go on Wednesday and do as
many performances as you can give.
"It's as simple and as terrifying as that."
Liam Neeson - or "Leslie Nielsen," as he was called in the show - did four
shows last week and says he'd love to do another.
But he's still far from topping Ralph Fiennes, the reigning champ, who did
24 shows including London's opening night.
And you never know who'll turn up next. So far, Neeson's wife, Natasha
Richardson, has seen the play, as have Edie Falco, Al Pacino, Kevin Bacon
and Stanley Tucci. If the past is an indication, they may follow suit.
But before Fiennes, there were no stars on the horizon.
"When we started making phone calls trying to explain to an agent what we
wanted, we'd be greeted by silence on the other end," said Dafydd Rogers,
the show's executive producer.
With days to go before opening night and not a guest star in sight, Kenneth
Branagh, the show's director, asked his friend Fiennes to appear as a favor.
Fiennes went on, the audience went wild - and the phones started ringing.
"Once [the mystery guests] saw we'd look after them and they'd have a good
time, they loved it," says "What I Wrote" star Hamish McColl, whom Nathan
Lane kept calling "Amish" ("I loved you in 'Witness' ").
Each star gets two three-hour sessions to help write and rehearse the
script. But not everything's scripted. The other week when Roger Moore was on, someone in the audience shouted, "I love you, Roger!"
To which the former James Bond replied, "What on earth are you doing here,
Who's on next? The show's staff isn't telling.
But Neeson is urging several actor pals to follow in his white-stockinged
footsteps. "You go on, and they make fun of you," he says.
"It's very healthy for the ego."
Newsweek, 28 April 2003
Starring... You'll See
In "The Play What I Wrote," a divinely sill hit from Britain that opened
on Broadway March 30, a new guest star is featured every few days.
A delightful concept, to be sue, but that amount of star power is also
quite a logistical challenge. Costumer Susan Gomez not only has to
adjust the costumes for both males and females of varying sizes (the
dresses come in large, medium and Kylie Minogue, she says) but also
designs a concept costume based on each new guest.
For John Lithgow? An oversize planet Earth. Nathan Lane? A Nathan's hot dog. Jason
Biggs: Well, let's just say there's pie involved.
It's no easier on
the rest of the ensemble. Getting the stars to come is easy ("When Mike
Nicholas calls you up you don't say no," Glenn Close says about the
well-connected producer). But writing new jokes tailored to each guest
and teaching them the play within a few hours has made for some ricky
nights. Even Kenneth Branagh, the show's director, blanked on his first
line -- "I am Kenneth Branagh" -- when he took his turn as the mystery
But it's the gimmick -- not the show's paltry plot -- that packs
the house each night. Call it the Cracker Jack effect. The guest is a
closely guarded secret, so it leaves audiences guessing. In the first
act there are references to Ian McKellen ("Is he here?"), Daryl Hannah
("I be it's her") and Glenn Close ("Is it her?"). Last Wednesday night,
it was indeed. When Close made her grand entrance '' -- "I am Glenn
Close" -- the audience went wild. And that is really how you draw top
talent for a mere $1,000 per performance.
People, 5 May 2003
"From London to Broadway, celebs dress up and goof off in THE PLAY WHAT I
Sting pranced in a hoop skirt. Kevin Kline was mistaken for Calvin Klein.
Liam Neeson forgot his first line - which was "I am Liam Neeson." It's all
part of the giggles in THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE, a British import that opened
on Broadway last month. Stars Sean Foley, 38, and Hamish McColl, 41,
subject each night's surprise guest star to indignities galore. Director
Kenneth Branagh allots guests only two rehearsals. "It's like the actor's
nightmare, where you're waking up on a stage and doing lines you don't
know," says Nathan Lane, but "it's the most fun anyone can have."
Sting - In London Foley and McColl dressed the star in drag and
rechristened him "Stink".
Ewan McGregor - "At the end he was doubled over laughing in the wings,"
says Foley. "He said, 'What a way to make a living.'"
Jerry Hall - "I couldn't stop laughing the whole time," says Hall, who like
other female stars, dressed as a friar.
Liam Neeson - "It's very healthy for the ego." says the actor, who got
called "Leslie Nielson" onstage.
Nathan Lane - "I went out drinking with Ken Branagh and five days later
woke up in a hoop skirt," jokes Lane.
Kylie Minogue - Starring at a benefit at Prince Charles' request, she
"didn't make one mistake," marvels McColl.
Kevin Kline - "Someone who thinks he's dignified is taken down a few pegs," Kline says.
Daniel Radcliffe - "We had loads of Harry Potter gags, says McColl. "He
tried not to laugh but couldn't help himself."