Theatre Archive

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MORECAMBE COMES TO THE NEW THEATRE

Bob Goulding (Eric) embarks on a reminiscent journey through the Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise legacy.

During their Christmas Special of 1977 Morecambe and Wise pulled in a record 28 million viewers – not bad for a tall man with glasses and one with short, fat hairy legs.  From the floodlights of the stage to the magical goggle-box these snappy jesters warmed the hearts of a nation with their effortless chemistry and clean humour. Megastars, with titles, wanted to appear on the Morecambe and Wise show; even John, Paul, George and ‘Bongo’ wanted in on the action – that’s how meteoric Morecambe and Wise were.

I wanted to go and see the Morecambe and Wise show but I wasn’t allowed to cross the Severn Bridge on my own after dark – not until I’d turned five, anyway. But by then it was too late. Eric Morecambe had passed away and the nation had lost its sunshine – Ernie had lost his rudder.  Even to this day I still rate Eric Morecambe as one of the greatest comedians of all time.  He was such a naturally gifted entertainer; quick witted and even quicker with an ad-lib.

Part of the fun of Morecambe and Wise was to see reputable actors, composers and singers be reduced to giggling wrecks during the plays what Ernie wrote, or bear the brunt of Eric’s irreverent jokes.  The ‘Andrew Preview’ sketch, “in the second movement, not too heavy on the banjos!” still reduces me to tears of joy – “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.  It was simply unheard of for leggy BBC newsreaders, Shakespearian thespians and music megastars to be made fools of in such a way.  It was also a privilege.

When I discovered that Bob Goulding was portraying my favourite funny man I was quite dubious. But upon further investigation I discovered that he was heralded by some of Eric’s closest friends and family – and if you squint long enough to get funny looks from passers by he is a dead ringer for a young Eric. Bob Goulding had been told this most of his life and envisaged his stumbling upon a pair of thick rimmed spectacles as a premonition. Golding approached his friend, Tim Whitnall, to write the definitive bioplay about one half of, “the most illustrious and the best-loved double-act that Britain has ever produced”. He did just that.

Upon arriving in the afterlife through a curtain Eric finds a sofa (so good) and a trunk which he opens to find a ventriloquist dummy of Ernie Wise – you still can’t see the join.  Helping himself to a drink – “Johnnie Walker, I know him well, makes you see double and act single” – Eric embarks on a reminiscent journey through his life.  He recalls the numerous childhood talent contests, where he and Ernie first met, the working men’s clubs and seedy provincial theatres – and the dreaded Glasgow Empire where comedians sink or swim. It is sometimes difficult to keep pace with the busy script and commendable energy coming from Goulding, but he seems content to leave the audience remain asleep for the first ten minutes – it’s not a bad audience, considering they fell off the back of a lorry.

There was no scandal in Eric Morecambe’s life – no affairs, drinking problems or quarrels, but his life was enough of a rollercoaster ride without them; from being invalided out of his National Service as a Bevin Boy due to a heart defect, to the disastrous television debut that set the partnership back years – where one reviewer defined the television as “the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in” – to the death of his beloved mother and the heart attacks he suffered in later life.

Well placed amid the rolling gags and one liners are tender moments where Eric speaks candidly of his friendship with Ernie and love for his mother. Goulding keeps the impersonation restrained and can clearly act his way out of a brown paper bag; portraying several characters with as much ease and confidence as the central role. He appears so at home with being Eric that one can’t help feeling for the figure on stage – like he had been spiritually repossessed.  There was not a dry eye in the house during the concluding scene where Eric performs one last number, tenderly kissing Ernie on the forehead before gently placing him back in the trunk – an end to over forty years of sunshine and laughter.

Morecambe is an extraordinary solo performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of his untimely death.  Bob Goulding is fantastic and grabs Tim Whitnall’s sharp script by the scruff; flawlessly willing the jokey John Eric Bartholomew into existence. With just a simple ventriloquist dummy Goulding skilfully manages to project a close companionship. Even Goulding would agree that it is not a perfect impersonation – Eric was one of a kind – and can be looked upon as more of a warm-hearted tribute.

But the shades of Morecambe that he does breathe to life are enough to induce a warm, fuzzy feeling.  Deciding to spend an evening with Morecambe turned out to be a wise choice after all.  It was a superb appreciation of the Eric Morecambe (and Ernie Wise) legacy; funny throughout and poignant in the right places – but, most importantly: “Rubbish!”

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BALLROOM STAND UP: THE ABSENCE OF COMEDY

Tonight, four comedians took to the stage and killed the art of comedy before my very eyes.  Still, you've got to see the funny side, haven't you?

I hadn’t been to a stand-up comedy show in ages –the last time was to see a guy called Eddie Izzard. The King’s Head comedy night in Crouch End, London – where I’ve drank my way towards forgetting several New Years – hosts a comedy night on a Thursday, and is still on my ‘to do’ list. On one particular Thursday I would etch an entry into my ‘not to do’ list while attending a comedy night some 170 miles and a bridge away from Crouch End at the cosy Ballroom of The Beaufort Theatre. At least it was a Thursday.

A fiver can get you a lot of satisfying things, but what it can’t buy you is two hours of your life back. Comedy night sounded like a good idea at the time. It was only a fiver for a ticket and the chosen venue was at the nearby theatre where I used to work; the theatre where I spend a year charming the work colleague that would become my girlfriend – and still is. We arrived at the ‘comedy night’ and took our seats amid a sold-out crowd of 20 Tesco shelf stackers. A few minutes into the first ‘comedy’ act, it became apparent that we had been lied to from the outset and I have given serious thought to filing for compensation under The Trades Description Act.

For two hours we were bombarded with crass and dated material from the well worn, cider stained pages of ‘Toilet Gags for Dummies’. The only thing that made me sit up and take notice during the entire two tortuous light years was when The Buzzcocks was played during the interval. Who would have believed that a Canadian could do sarcasm better than the British natives that crafted it – a yardstick of how dismal the other acts were.  He was commenting on the fact that the January snowstorms had almost led him to buy a scarf. He was by far the best of the bunch; likening Canadians to the Welsh because we always fail to get into cup finals, we are nice, and we live next door to a country we hate. His jokes, though, were buried a long time ago alongside British politics – but at least he didn’t resort to using any exhausted Thesaurus entries for genitalia in order to get cheap sympathy laughs – unlike the next guy.

The most cringe-worthy of the questionable comedians – and the only Welsh one to add insult to the festering wound – struck the evening death-blow by dropping his trousers.  This summed everything up quite aptly: his act was totally and literally pants; at least Max Boyce had a leek to show him up. Then there was the compare from Bristol. There’s a fine line between having a laugh with the audience and being an obnoxious twat; he had obviously snagged his Bristolian bollocks on that fine line. If he was actually cutting and cleaver with his words it would have been funny, but audience retorts shouldn’t get the most laughs – and at the compares’ expense. Normally, hecklers are a pain in the arse, but in this instance they provided the bulk of the entertainment – only in the Valleys could this happen.

So, what do you get if you take a Bristolian troll, your average Canadian, a Welsh odd-ball, and give them free reign with a microphone? For the love of Zeus don’t look for the punch line. Go to your local Wetherspoons and watch some of the tanked-up locals instead – you’ll piss yourself laughing!

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COLUMBO – PRESCRIPTION: MURDER

Dirk Benedict stars as the deceptive detective in the dirty raincoat at the New Theatre, Cardiff.
Prescription: Murder was the first Lieutenant Columbo case ever written; it was originally a stage play before becoming the pilot episode for the television series. Psychiatrist Roy Fleming is in trouble with his wife after answering the call of a female patient on their wedding anniversary – the patient turns out to be his young bit-on-the-side; an actress named Susan Hudson. Roy’s marriage had been sour for some time so he plans to kill off his trouble and strife, ‘She just won’t come around to my way of thinking,’ he explains to his mistress.

Randy old Roy does away with Mrs. Fleming at their swanky apartment – using the standard strangulation method – and recruits leggy Susan – dress as his wife – to act out a domestic between the two of them at the airport, resulting in her storming off and leaving Roy to travel alone. Mrs. Fleming would later be found dead at the apartment, presumably killed by an opportunist burglar. It would have worked had Roy managed to kill her properly! He soon returns from his trip to Acapulco.  The body of his wife is missing and a scruffy looking detective in a dirty raincoat is snooping around the place. The Detective fills him in on the events. It turns out that his wife was merely comatosed.  She did wake up for a brief time and spent most of it repeating his name before popping her clogs for good, this time.

The chess game commences as the seeds of doubt are planted and Columbo uses psychological games to try and pin the murder on Fleming. Grating away, he lures Roy into a false sense of security by leading him to believe that he, the disarming detective, is just a washed-up cop without a clue. In one scene Columbo visits Roy and proposes that he consults him on a weekly basis because he, ‘seems to rub people up the wrong way and tends to forget things easily’. The shrink suggests that things are often forgotten for a reason, to which the Lieutenant replies ‘Oh, I hope not, sir! I left my wife behind at the bowling alley last week!’ Columbo finally manoeuvres his suspect into admission with the reluctant cooperation of Susan, who overhears Roy explaining to Columbo that he feels nothing for her. Check, and mate to Lieutenant Columbo.

It was 50 minutes in to the show before Dirk Benedict entered stage-left to a warm reception, and  it was a further 30 minutes before he delivered the classic line ‘just one more thing…’ It was apparent from the first word that Benedict had nailed the character; articulation, body language and facial expressions were as close to Peter Falk as they could have been. Dirk is looking good for his age, too – my girlfriend was forced to ponder the dilemma of finding a near geriatric attractive – not unlike my morally unsound crush on Jessica Rabbit (she’d never leave Roger).

I don’t go to stage plays very often, but then, we don’t get many cult icons in town very often – particularly ones portraying my favourite TV detectives. Unlike the silver screen, the theatre still remains loyal to the originals – I shudder to think what Columbo would look like if Guy Ritchie ever got his hands on it. I’m considering swapping my cinema tickets for theatre tickets more often – the result is more gratifying. There was one more thing, but I can’t remember for the life of me what it was.
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‘SHERLOCK HOLMES…THE DEATH AND LIFE’

The first time I saw Roger Llewellyn’s sublime one man performance as the near unbalanced and eccentric consulting detective Sherlock […]

The first time I saw Roger Llewellyn’s sublime one man performance as the near unbalanced and eccentric consulting detective Sherlock Holmes was in 2001. ‘The Last Act’ was set after Watson’s funeral in the backdrop of  World War One. Holmes is sat alone in Baker Street, everything he once knew and held dear in the world has changed around him. He feels out of place in the world, out of touch and out of time. He reminisces of old adventures with his loyal companion, confessing past sins, and finally reveals the painful truths to his departed friend about his youth and upbringing around an alcoholic and violent father. I enjoyed Robert Llewellyn’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes so much that I went to see him again the following year. I have come to look at Roger Llewellyn as a definitive performer of Sherlock Holmes in modern times, second only to Jeremy Brett.

2009 saw a new production of Sherlock Holmes being toured around the UK.  ‘Sherlock Holmes…The Death and Life’ combines the worlds of fiction and reality as we shift between Doyle’s inner psyche and Sherlock Holmes’ fictional world of 19th century London. Doyle has grown tired of being referred to as ‘the Sherlock Holmes man’ and has decided, once and for all, to kill off the great detective – favouring to write about the fantasy and spiritual worlds – his latest obsession. He invents arch villain Moriarty to eliminate the detective.

During a confrontation between Holmes and his nemesis at 221b Baker Street, Moriarty reveals to Holmes that they are both mere works of fiction; the foggy London surroundings merely infantile window dressing for the sleuth to inhabit. Even his faithful Boswell – Dr Watson – is a mere conduit through which Doyle channels his fiction. During a spirit meeting Doyle is confronted by Sherlock Holmes. He persuades Doyle that because he exists in the dark recesses of his mind, he cannot be destroyed; he will always live on as an immortal work of fiction.

Sherlock Holmes…The Death and Life sees Roger Llewellyn pull off another masterful and frighteningly real portrayal of the world’s first consulting detective. The play is both light hearted and downright cutting in places and Llewellyn makes it look easy as he seamlessly morphs into several characters – including Holmes, Lestrade, Moriarty, and Doyle – with no more than a some subtle lighting and a change of hat; expertly altering the tempo of his voice, demeanour, gait, and mood. The grace and ease at which Llewellyn brought these characters to life is a clear reflection of his passion and knowledge of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional world.