Will there always be an England? In theatrical terms, undoubtedly — at least as long as the West End continues to offer up productions such as “The Play What I Wrote,” an endearing tribute to legendary, now-deceased TV funnymen Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the art of comedy itself. The recipient of largely rapturous reviews, this latest theatrical foray from the Right Size duo of Sean Foley and Hamish McColl may mean considerably less to spectators — like myself — not weaned on Morecambe and Wise’s antics, which at the peak of their popularity drew a weekly TV audience of some 28 million. On the other hand, if you respond to the literal-minded mayhem of Abbott and Costello, the comic impulse behind “The Play What I Wrote” isn’t that far removed. And with rotating celebrity guests scheduled throughout the run (the lineup already has featured Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor and Richard E. Grant, with Maureen Lipman due next week), director Kenneth Branagh’s production carries its built-in suspense factor well into the second act — which is when the mystery star shows up and pandemonium truly prevails.
Until that time, and for much of a fairly undernourished first act, some may find themselves wondering why all the fuss (as several apparently did at the perf caught, given their failure to return after the intermission). Plays about plays being de rigueur around London at the moment, there’s little intrinsically surprising about the conceit: A performing duo whose teamwork risks being torn asunder due to a deep misunderstanding about what the bandy-limbed and balding Foley and the shorter, bug-eyed McColl are even doing on the Wyndham’s stage. (Sample exchange: “I’ve got the Wyndham’s.” “It must be the way you’re standing.”) Amid much talk of London’s “glittering West End” — and more mention of (offstage) producer David Pugh than even David Merrick in his heyday might have managed — talk of paying tribute to Morecambe and Wise is interspersed with protestations from McColl about staging his own play. The confusion is both alleviated and heightened by third player Toby Jones, a prodigious talent who urges the audience during an early sign of chaos to “take this opportunity to enjoy our usherettes.” (Elsewhere, he impersonates a dog and has a go at the harmonica.)
The joke, of course, is that the Morecambe and Wise sketches more often than not get re-created almost in spite of themselves, with Foley and McColl sliding in and out of homage and back to their own distinctive stage personae. The superior second act includes its own play-within-a-play — the no less singularly titled “A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple” — and moves on to a mock-Strindbergian dissection of need: Eric needed Ernie, we’re told, just as Foley needs McColl, the modern-day pair responding to a clarion call for companionship, and not just lunacy, that Morecambe and Wise first tolled many decades ago.While far greater aficionados than I can tick off the Eric-Ernie references, the comedy builds to its own sustainedly silly pitch, complete with repartee (“Do you have a highball?” “None of your business”) guaranteed to bring a smile to that same public who may remember the “Kipling” jokes in the no less British “Me and My Girl.” Jokes abound on the topic of farts and the Village People (not one and the same) alongside a running gag about Sir Ian McKellen being stuck down at the pub — a line that New York visitors, among others, will be quick to spot as a lie for as long as the actor is on Broadway in “Dance of Death.” Once he returns to London, Sir Ian looks likely to take the guest star spot occupied on a recent Monday night by Richard Wilson, the stentorian actor-director and TV star who surrendered himself gleefully to the Gallic excesses of “The Scarlet Pimple” — to wit, “liberte, egalite, cup of the” (you’ll have to imagine the accents, I’m afraid.) It’s Wilson’s utter seriousness of demeanor, not to mention the barrel-deep voice and his rich blue robe, that threw the larkiness into that much brighter relief, just as Ralph Fiennes — prompting the best reviews he’s had in any medium for some time now — reportedly did on opening night the week before.
In some ways, it’s the innocence of “The Play What I Wrote” (the grammatical inaccuracy of the title is part of its point) that represents the evening’s best calling card, whether or not one clocks the allusion the minute Foley and McColl emerge tap dancing in Morecambe and Wise’s signature formal wear. With the duo’s own writer — Eddie Braben — on tap these many years later to refine the routines once more, the evening trades in old-fashioned verbal jokes (the aural affinity between soliloquy and syllabub) and visual ones — ledges that cannot be sat on — of an all but vanished sort. In an era in which West End comedy consists of Jackie Mason snarling wisecracks about anthrax, “The Play What I Wrote” takes a post-modern approach to the primal appeal of humor, reminding audiences of whatever age of that time when the world — and they — seemed young.