Tribute acts have over the years become the lifeblood of regional theatres. People singing songs we know and love is one thing, however, but expecting people to come out and hear jokes they’ve heard before — many so familiar they are part of the national consciousness — is surely a much bigger ask. Nothing dates like comedy they say. And when the act is as beloved as the legendary Morecambe and Wise, you have to admire the courage of the people taking it on. But anyone thinking of seeing this very funny Olivier-nominated show shouldn’t be disappointed because Jonty Stephens as Eric Morecambe and Ian Ashpitel as Ernie Wise carry the whole thing off with magnificent aplomb.
In front of an audience made up of people who were probably among the twenty plus million viewers who tuned in to the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Shows (yes, they were that popular) Stephens and Ashpitel run through all the favourite and familiar sketches and routines. Many are so well known they were getting laughs before the punchline; “It’s almost as if they knew what was coming” says “Eric” on hearing an ambulance siren — you know the rest.
Things got off to a slightly flat start as the audience weighed up the performers but it didn’t last long before everyone settled back and just enjoyed two entertainers at the absolute top of their game. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay them is that I forgot I was watching a tribute act, although that label doesn’t do them justice, and revelled in the laughs.
These are not impersonations as such with over exaggerated ticks and gestures. Stephens and Ashpitel inhabit their characters totally, with every vocal inflection, physical gesture and their timing note perfect — and in all the right order. Such is their mastery, there was an ad lib worthy of the originals when someone’s phone went off.
There is a delightful musical interlude courtesy of excellent singer Sinead Wall, although she wasn’t done any favours by the theatre PA. And in true M&W tradition they hilariously got in on the act while she sang Send in the Clowns.
Morecambe and Wise are from the golden age of variety and Jonty Stephens and Ian Ashpitel are doing a magnificent job of keeping it alive. Thank goodness someone is.
Reviewer: Tony Peters