Encanto

Cineworld, Edinburgh

06/12/21

As Disney celebrates its 60th anniversary, it’s interesting to observe how far it’s come in its efforts to celebrate diversity and in its depictions of the world’s different cultures. Encanto is a slice of magical realism, set in a fictional settlement hidden somewhere deep in the Colombian jungle. Gifted to its original settlers by unknown powers via a magical candle, and presided over by the stern Alma Madrigal (voiced by Maria Cecilia Botero), this is a place where the very walls and floors are sentient, moving to accommodate and assist all who pass through its doors. (Note to self: I need a place like this.)

Alma’s children and her extended family are blessed with bizarre magical ‘gifts,’ which range from super-strength to the ability to create exotic flowers at will. Only one of the Madrigals has missed out on these abilities and that’s Mirabel (Stepanie Beatriz), who tries not to feel left out as everyone around her performs eye-popping wonders at the drop of a proverbial hat.

Then one day, Mirabel sees something strange: the Madrigal’s beloved home breaking asunder as, for some unknown reason, it begins to lose its magic. She tries telling the others what she seen, but Alma instructs her, in no uncertain terms, to keep her mouth shut. Could it be that Mirabel is like her mysterious Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo), who also had dark visions, always got blamed when things went wrong – and eventually went missing?

As you’d expect from the House of Mouse, the animation here is dazzling and the many different characterisations are beautifully realised. Throw in some original Latinx-flavoured songs by man of the moment, Lin Manuel Miranda, and you have a rich and vibrant feast that seems tailor-made for festive viewing, even though there isn’t a snowflake or a sprig of holly in sight.

If Encanto has a weakness, it’s in its storyline.

While the film concentrates on the importance of family and how being ordinary should never be seen as a failing, the story’s narrative arc features no sense of threat, no real danger. The worst that can happen to the Madrigals is they might lose their fancy house and their super-powers and will have to content themselves with being just like the other people in their community. Which really doesn’t generate enough suspense to make me care enough about the outcome.

Perhaps I’m being churlish – and I’m hardly in this film’s demographic. As I said, the animation here is state-of-the-art and the music will have you dancing in your seat. If you have youngsters who need entertaining and you’re looking for a feel-good festive treat than Encanto could be exactly what you’re looking for.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Power of the Dog

04/11/21

Netflix

It’s been twelve years since Jane Campion directed a movie and now here’s The Power of the Dog, a ‘western,’ filmed in her native New Zealand, masquerading as Montana in 1925. It’s an interesting period in which to set a story. On the one hand we have cattle drives, carrying on pretty much as they have since the mid 1800s and, on the other, the streets are full of Ford automobiles, the new era clashing headlong with the old. Ari Wegner’s majestic cinematography recalls the best of John Ford, the machinations of mankind constantly in battle with the awesome wonders of the landscape.

It’s in this world that Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), struggle to perpetuate the traditions of their family business, but they are dinosaurs, doomed to yield to the changing times. This is the first film in which writer/director Campion has chosen to feature a male lead and Phil is, perhaps inevitably, the consummate toxic male: cantankerous, vindictive and quick to demolish anybody who offers an alternative to his established way of life. Phil refers to his brother as ‘Fatso’ – to his face – and is not slow to heap disdain on anyone who stands in his path.

When George unexpectedly marries widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), Phil is brutally critical of her, particularly when George encourages her to play the piano, something that she protests she’s actually not very good at. (She’s right, she’s not.) To rub salt into the wounds, Phil is an accomplished banjo player.

Rose has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a predilection for making paper flowers and who is quietly studying to be a surgeon. Phil initially takes every opportunity to belittle him, encouraging the other ranch hands to mock him, because of his supposedly effeminate mannerisms.

But Phil has a secret. He is openly in thrall to the late cowboy Bronco Henry, the man who taught him to ride a horse, a man who he still keeps a shrine to in the stables. But as the story progresses, it’s clear that there was something more between the two of them, something that Phil hides from the eyes of the world. When Phil appears to soften and takes Paul under his wing, the scene is set for a psychological drama with a conclusion that you probably won’t see coming. I certainly don’t. It’s only after the credits have rolled that I’m able to piece the clues together.

Cumberbatch went ‘method’ for this and he inhabits the sweary, sweaty, alpha-male world of Phil Burbank with absolute authority. You’ll almost certainly despise him, which is, I think, Campion’s aim. Smitt-McPhee creates an enigmatic persona as Paul, a boy who keeps his cards close to his chest.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that Dunst’s character feels somewhat overshadowed in this male-dominated world, a woman who will allow herself to be driven to alcoholism rather than stand up for herself. What’s more, Thomasin McKenzie, a rising star after Last Night in Soho, has a thankless role as a housemaid with hardly a line of dialogue. I guess that’s simply a reflection of the era.

Plemons, as the monosyllabic George, is nicely drawn, though he’s mostly absent from the film’s second half and I miss the silent confrontation between the two brothers, where I think the story’s true power lies. Jonny Greenwood – who seems to be popping up all over the place at the moment – submits one of his quirky soundtracks.

Once again, Netflix has backed a winner. The Power of the Dog is a handsome film, expertly created and a genuine pleasure to watch. Cumberbatch has been hotly tipped for an Oscar and it won’t be a huge surprise it it comes to fruition.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

House of Gucci

02/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

A talented young man is motivated by his manipulative wife to take hold of the power that lies within easy reach. He just needs to be ruthless in order to obtain it. Despite his qualms, he follows her advice and is led onwards to his own destruction.

This is, of course, the plot of Macbeth, but it’s also one that fits House of Gucci like a perfectly designed leather glove. Ridley Scott’s film, based on the book by Sara Gay Forden, relates the true life events that led up to the assassination, in 1995, of Maurizio Gucci, the major shareholder in one of the world’s most successful fashion brands. If proof were ever needed that real life can be weirder than fiction, then here it is, writ large.

When we first meet Maurizio (Adam Driver) it’s the 1970s and, though he’s well aware that he’s the potential heir to the Gucci fortune, he’s already decided he wants none of it and is training to be a lawyer. Then, at a party, he meets Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who – having recognised the possibilities that Maurizo’s surname offers – has soon romanced him to the point where he wants to marry her.

Maurizio’s sickly father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), decides she’s a ‘gold-digger’ and advises his son to steer clear, but Maurizio is smitten enough to renounce the family fortunes in order to be with her. It isn’t long before Maurizio and Patrizia are married and a baby daughter is on the way. Meanwhile, she keeps reminding Maurizio that he needs to step up to the plate and take control of his inheritance…

After the assured (but sadly unsuccessful) The Last Duel, this film feels like another Ridley Scott body- swerve. He’s always been a director that refuses to be pigeon-holed and this really couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, but where TLD felt perfectly judged, HOG is just flabby and unfocused, a parade of caricatures cavorting in a series of fancy locations. It rarely feels like these people are real and have actual lives.

While Lady Gaga certainly puts in a game performance as the success-obsessed Patrizia, even Al Pacino as Maurizo’s Uncle Aldo struggles to rise above the clunky dialogue he’s been given.

And then there’s the enigma of Jared Leto as Aldo’s deluded son, Paolo, who fancies himself as a fashion designer but has no evident talent to back him up. It’s panto season, so perhaps that explains why Leto feels the need to deliver his lines in a kind of high pitched sing-song fashion, but it just seems… really odd. What’s more, with a two-hour-thirty-eight minute running time, there’s a lot here that should have been cut back. The film doesn’t really find its mojo until the final third, but by then it feels like a case of too little, too late. There’s a welcome appearance by Call My Agent‘s Camille Cottin as the new woman in Maurizio’s life, but she’s not given enough to do.

It certainly doesn’t help that most of the people involved are venal, unscrupulous capitalists and it speaks volumes when Pacino’s Aldo – an unapologetic tax dodger – emerges as the film’s most sympathetic character.

In the end, this is something of a disappointment.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Sleeping Beauty

01/12/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The King’s panto is an Edinburgh institution, and this year’s is extra special for a number of reasons. It’s the first one since the pandemic forced the theatres to go dark. The last one before the King’s closes for refurbishment. And the first one since the demise of Andy Gray, one third of the beloved triumvirate synonymous with Christmas theatre in this city. This Sleeping Beauty isn’t just a pantomime; it’s a tribute to him too.

There’s nothing new here. If you think you’ve seen it all before, well, you probably have. This is a tried and tested formula. Elaborate tongue-twisters? Check. Queen May hovering over the audience on a cantilever? Check. That thing they do with the chocolate bars? Check. It’s all there, like a greatest hits album. And thank goodness for that. Because this is as warm and familiar as a comfy cardy or a mug of hot chocolate – exactly what we need on a cold winter’s night.

The theatre is busy and bustling, but it feels relatively safe. People are taking the mask-wearing seriously; we’re all used to it now, and it doesn’t seem to impede the fun or mute the atmosphere. Anyway, we’re all putty in Queen May’s hands: Allan Stewart is a consummate comedian, and he knows how to work an audience, proving the adage that it’s not the joke, it’s the joker. Even the cheesiest of cheesy lines is funny when he utters it.

Grant Stott is here too, of course, and he’s a towering presence, playing Queen May’s – ahem – identical sister, Carabosse. In this version of the story, she’s the villain who curses Princess Aurora (Sia Dauda), dooming her death when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel. The Good Fairy (Nicola Meehan) isn’t powerful enough to reverse the spell, but she can modify it, and Aurora falls asleep instead…

It’s nice to see the fool conflated with the love interest. Jordan Young plays Muddles, the jester whose heart belongs to Aurora. He delivers a wonderfully energetic performance, and appears to be having the time of his life as he hurtles from one ridiculous moment to another.

Andy Gray might be gone, but he’s not forgotten. His daughter, Clare Gray, has picked up the family panto-mantle, playing punky Princess Narcissa. She must be proud as punch when the audience applauds ‘King Andy’ – the affection is sincere and profound.

As ever, the King’s panto is a real treat, and not to be missed.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Petite Maman

24/11/21

Cineworld Edinburgh

Céline Sciamma’s last film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was one of the most widely acclaimed releases of 2020, a sumptuous historical drama, which had plenty to say about the creative process and also offered a heartrending tale of forbidden love. My one regret at the time was that the restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic meant that I could only view it on the small screen.

Petite Maman really couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. Shot during lockdown and using only a handful of actors, it relates its intimate story over just seventy-two minutes and yet, in its own muted way, it’s a magical experience, with a central premise that stays with me long after the credits have rolled.

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a little girl called Nelly (Josephine Sanz) accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the old woman’s house, somewhere in the French countryside, where they will spend time clearing out her belongings. Nelly’s parents don’t seem to be getting along too well and the rediscovery of her childhood belongings seems to make her mother melancholic. Left to her own devices, Nelly goes exploring the nearby woods, where she meets a girl her own age called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Marion is building a tree house and, almost without a word exchanged between them, Nelly starts to help her with the task.

It is apparent from the word go that something very strange is happening…

And it would be criminal to outline any more of the plot. Suffice to say that what transpires is an enchanting ‘what if’ story, and that Sciamma, who also wrote the script, offers us very little in the way of exposition and even less that might serve as explanation. She has the confidence to leave it up to the viewer to put the pieces together, which, because little clues have been expertly placed, is easy to do.

The two young actors are a joy to watch, their simple adventures delightful and, somehow, their performances hardly feel like ‘acting’ at all. Cinematographer Claire Mahon captures the events in a glowing, autumnal light that makes the incredible seem entirely possible. Watching this, I’m reminded of times in my own childhood, when a walk in the woods could take me to a place where my imagination would conjure the most wonderful adventures.

Petite Maman is simply enchanting and, given it’s brisk running time – a rare accomplishment in an era that sometimes seems incapable of creating any film shorter that two hours – it blows by like a wisp of gossamer: sweet, magical and beautifully understated.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

King Richard

21/11/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

King Richard is a fascinating biopic. The more obvious story belongs to Venus and Serena – and, of course, they’re very present here – but Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film, scripted by Zach Baylin, focuses instead on their father. It’s an astute move. We already know about Venus and Serena – their prodigious talent, their trailblazing, their gracious presence on the world stage. They’re wonderful, inspirational women. But they owe a lot of their success to their father, whose single-minded determination to raise champions has made him a controversial figure.

In King Richard, we are presented with a sympathetic view of a man who has often been depicted as overbearing and manipulative. It seems fair to assume that the man we see here, played with Oscar-worthy aplomb by Will Smith, is closer to the reality than some of the stories we have read. After all, Serena, Venus and their sister Isha are all listed as executive producers, which is about as strong as endorsement gets.

Richard Williams is a man with a plan. A serious, written-down, eighty-page plan. He might have spent his youth running from the Ku Klux Klan, being beaten up and fighting against adversity, but he wants better for his girls. Just because they live in Compton, where he and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), work long shifts in badly-paid jobs (she’s a nurse; he’s a security guard) and five kids share a bedroom, that’s no reason not to pursue your dreams. Richard knows that, if he wants doors to open, he’s going to have to knock loudly, because no talent scouts are coming to the local park to see eleven-year-old Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and her little sister, Serena (Demi Singleton), as they sweep the tennis courts free of leaves and then practise, practise, practise their game.

Of course, there’s not much jeopardy here, because we know how things pan out. Richard’s persistence pays off, and his daughters’ incredible talent is allowed to shine. What makes the story work is its portrayal of the battle, of how damned hard Richard has to work. I’m in awe of the courage it must have taken to boldly approach the most prestigious coaches of the tennis world and demand their attention. The Williamses don’t ‘fit in’ to the rich, white world of tennis, with its moneyed ritual of securing a certain type of coach before entering the right competitions, climbing through the ranks in the conventional way. They’re poor; they’re working class and – most obviously – they’re Black. But as soon as Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), one of those prestigious coaches, sees them play, everything changes. Because Venus and Serena are spectacularly good.

Green manages to make tennis suitably cinematic, which is no mean achievement. I love watching the sport, but this isn’t the same as a match, and repeated shots of serves and volleys can quickly become dull. That doesn’t happen here, despite the two-hour-eighteen-minute running time. He never falls back on the most conventional device of a sports biopic – the ‘inspirational montage.’

Singleton and Sidney are perfectly cast. They nail the Williams sisters’ charming, sweet-natured but fiercely competitive spirits, and are a real delight to watch. And Smith’s Richard might well be generally sympathetic, but it feels plausible as well; he’s no hero or saint. Instead, he’s a bit of a windbag, a bit too self-important, heedless of his wife and as stubborn as a mule. But there’s no doubting his good heart, nor the sacrifices he makes to ensure that his daughters succeed without relinquishing their childhoods, that Venus and Serena not only have a better life than his, but pave the way for other Black girls to follow in their Reebok-prints.

4.1 stars

Susan SIngfield

tick, tick… Boom!

20/11/21

Netflix

Lin Manuel-Miranda is having a bit of a moment. After his breakthrough with Hamilton, it was perhaps inevitable that we’d be seeing a lot more of him, but, close on the heels of the filmed adaptation of his first theatrical endeavour, In the Heights, here’s his directorial debut. And, just over the horizon, lurks the Disney animation he’s created the music for – Encanto.

It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate director for tick, tick…. Boom! Here, the second musical by the late Jonathan Larson is turned into a production that’s about as meta as you could ask for: a show about a show about the creation of another show, Larson’s debut production Superbia. This adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, was something he spent eight years of his life working on, but was destined to be seen by only a handful of people.

It’s hardly a spoiler to point out that Larson was the creator of Rent and that he died tragically of an aneurism, at the age of thirty-five, the night before its premiere. The show subsequently went on to enjoy a twelve year run on Broadway, and won countless awards.

When we first encounter Jonathan (Andrew Garfield), he’s trying to write a song for Superbia and, like any real genius, he’s suffering for his art, eking out a precarious existence in his down-at-heel flat. He’s trying to maintain a troubled relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Ship), and he’s working at a local diner earning the pennies to fuel his dreams of success. His best friend, Michael (Robin de Jesus), who he’s known since childhood, throws over his own long-nurtured ambition of becoming an actor and goes into the world of advertising, reaping himself a beautiful high-rise flat into the bargain. He offers Jonathan a way in to that world but Jonathan is adamant.

He will achieve his dream, whatever the cost.

Tick, tick… Boom! is all about the pain of artistic endeavour – the pursuit of success at all costs – and, inevitably, because we know what’s waiting for our hero a few years down the line, the whole enterprise seems shockingly accentuated. Brilliantly staged and easily accessible, TTB wastes no time in its setup but flings us headlong into Larson’s world. We see his story as presented by him and his fellow performers as a kind of rock-opera-workshop. The songs are accessible, the lyrics witty and relevant and Garfield is exceptional in the central role, piloting us to the dizzy heights and awful depths negotiated by any artist trying to be heard.

Those fearing that this will be unbearably ‘arty’ can relax. This is a story that covers all of the emotions from exuberant to poignant, and it would be a flinty heart indeed that doesn’t warm to a tragic tale of youthful genius that comes into flower just a moment too late. The spectre of AIDs hangs heavy over the proceedings – and, as some of Larson’s closest friends succumb to the illness, we begin to understand how Rent came to fruition.

‘Write about what you know,’ advises Larson’s elusive agent, Rosa (Judith Light). So he does – and finally finds the story that’s been eluding him for so long.

This is a delightful film, one that will strike chords with anyone who has striven to create art of any kind. Yes, there’s a deep vein of melancholy running through its heart, but just look and listen. There’s joy here too.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

18/11/21

Cineworld

The original Ghostbusters movies were undemanding fun, I suppose, but I’m often astonished by the reverence with which they’re regarded, as though they are some kind of cinematic holy relics. The 2016 reboot, which featured female protagonists, may not have been wonderful, but it certainly didn’t deserve the levels of derision that were piled upon it from all quarters, with some observers complaining that their childhoods had been ‘destroyed.’ Really? At any rate, the events of that film have been brushed under the carpet and, for the purposes of this story, all has been quiet on the haunting front since the mid 1980s.

A lot of careful thought has clearly been put into Afterlife well before the cameras rolled. Directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, who helmed the first two movies), this clever reboot places teenage protagonists at the heart of the story and it makes for such a perfect fit, I find myself thinking that this would have been a much more sensible approach back in the day. After all, the Ghostbusters films were clearly aimed at young audiences in the first place and that’s where they found their success. So why not make kids the driving force behind this new iteration?

After the breakup of her marriage, Callie (Carrie Coon) finds herself in dire financial straits, unable to pay the rent on the apartment she shares with her two kids, Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, still able to pass for a fifteen-year-old at the grand old age of eighteen). Providence seems to provide an answer when Callie’s estranged grandfather dies, leaving her an old farmhouse in Summerville, Oklahoma. Soon, the three of them are attempting to settle in to the near derelict property, which is still stocked with familiar-looking equipment and, which Phoebe quickly discovers, seems to be haunted by a ghostly presence.

Phoebe enrols at the local summer school, where she encounters the affable ‘Podcast’ (Logan Kim), named because of… well, his obsession with recording podcasts. She also impresses likeable science teacher, Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd), who has a proclivity for showing his classes highly inappropriate movies on VHS, while he gets on with his own singular obsession, that of studying the strange seismic activity that’s currently afflicting the area.

But of course, we all know that these are no ordinary earthquakes – and that, deep in an abandoned mine, supernatural forces are steadily gathering power…

The witty script (co-written by the director) effortlessly captures the nerdy humour of today’s teenagers and I like the fact that the film takes its time introducing the young leads before heading off into more spooktacular territory. The original films are suitably homaged (The Stay Puft Marshallow Man? Check! The Ectomobile? All present and correct!) and while there are inevitable guest appearances in the film’s final furlongs, this is never allowed to be ‘old-guys-coming-to-the-rescue-of-the-kids.’ No, Phoebe, Trevor and Podcast are running this operation, ably assisted by Sheriff’s daughter, Lucky (Celeste O’ Connor).

The film’s emotional conclusion could so easily have been mishandled but, like pretty much everything else here, it’s astutely done, managing to steer clear of mawkish pitfalls and just feeling warmly appropriate. When that familiar theme music kicks in, don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave the theatre. There’s a charming post-credit scene you won’t want to miss.

I like Ghostbusters: Afterlife a lot – in fact, at the risk of destroying a few more childhoods, I’d go so far as to say that, for my money, this might just be the best film of the franchise.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Death Drop

17/11/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s nothing subtle about Death Drop. This pantomime-style murder-mystery spoof is as big, bold and spangly as a sequinned frock, and there are plenty of them in evidence too. Director Jesse Jones has embraced the ostentatious, which is, let’s be honest, the only option for a show with an international cast of Drag Race stars.

The set-up is familiar: we’re in a spooky manor house on a remote island. It’s 1991 and Lady von Fistenburg (Vinegar Strokes) is hosting a party in honour of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s tenth wedding anniversary. Okay, maybe not all of it is familiar. Blue, Brie and Spread Bottomley (three sisters – or peas, named after cheese – all played by writer Holly Stars) have been engaged to do the catering for an eclectic mix of guests. These are: has-been pop starlet, Shazza (Willam); TV weather girl, Summer Raines (Ra’Jah O’Hara); odious newspaper editor, Morgan Pierce (Karen from Finance); Tory MP, Rich Whiteman (Richard Energy), and film-maker, erm, Phil Maker (Georgia Frost). But – oh no! – there’s a storm! Cue OTT sound and lighting effects from Beth Duke and Jack Weir. The phone lines are down, the electricity’s playing up and a fallen tree has blocked the only bridge to the mainland. And, one by one, the guests begin to die. Someone is clearly intent on murder. But who?

I spend the first ten minutes thinking I’m going to hate this show. I like drag, but the humour here is way beyond broad. They’re establishing the context, so there are lots of 90s references, but it’s all a bit sub-Peter Kay. I mean, just mentioning ‘Anne Diamond’ shouldn’t be enough to get a laugh, should it? I want my comedians to work harder than that: tell me a joke about Fray Bentos; don’t just say the words.

But it soon hits its stride, and I find myself laughing with everybody else. The assembled drag artists strut their stuff with aplomb, and the silliness is disarming. There are a few songs thrown in to good effect (penned by the ever-marvellous Flo and Joan), and these really help the carnival atmosphere. I’m less familiar with the work of drag kings than I am drag queens, but they make perfect sense: like their counterparts, they focus on exaggerated gender and cartoonish caricatures.

Holly Stars is a standout: her deadpan delivery guaranteed to entertain. Richard Energy’s Rich Whiteman is noteworthy too, a study in extravagant characterisation. I like Karen from Finance’s Morgan Pierce; it’s a peach of a part and Karen aces it.

There are a few issues. The second act is baggy, and the payoff isn’t strong enough. Death Drop peters out instead of climaxing, and – in a show as dependent on innuendo as this – that really matters. Nonetheless, this is fun. If your three favourite things are Drag Race, The Play That Goes Wrong and panto, then this is your dream production.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Eric and Ern

15/11/21

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Picture this.

It’s sometime in the late 1960s and I’m a kid. (Yes, I actually was a kid, back in the day. I have a birth certificate to prove it.) I’m with my parents and my older sister, sitting in our modest house on an RAF base somewhere in the UK (probably Lincolnshire). We’re all gathered in front of a television set, housed in a walnut cabinet the size of East Anglia, with a screen that has the dimensions of a postage stamp. This is of course in the years BS (before streaming), so if there’s a show you want to see you have to be there, on the dot, otherwise the chance will be gone pretty much forever… or at least until somebody invents the concept of reruns. I’m a typical kid, already displaying symptoms of being an individual, and there aren’t many shows my parents like that I’m willing to watch. But there is one notable exception. Morecambe and Wise.

The decades move on, but still all four of us are happy to sit down together and watch these two northern comics whenever they have a new series or a Christmas special. What is it about them that’s so good? Nobody could accuse Eric Morecambe of having brilliant material – his stuff was kind of hack – but he was just a genuinely funny man, who, with a wiggle of his glasses and a sidelong glance, could humiliate the pompous, overbearing Ernie Wise, a man so convinced of his own talent that he was willing to employ major stars to appear in ‘the plays what he wrote.’

I never tired of the act and, like many, I was gutted when Eric Morecambe died, Ernie Wise retired and there would be no more nights worshipping at their shrine.

Eric and Ern is, I suppose, a tribute act but it seems somehow more than just that. While Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens look, move and sound like the real McCoys, there’s such warmth in this performance, such evident affection for the original duo, that it feels like stepping into a time machine and heading back to those long-mourned nights. The show is cleverly paced, composed of excerpts from classic sketches, each one just long enough to ensure it doesn’t outstay its welcome. There’s also a stooge in the form of vocalist Sinead Wall, who somehow succeeds in keeping a straight face through her lovely rendition of Send in the Clowns, while ‘Eric’ and ‘Ern’ cavort in costume just behind her.

Long cherished routines are observed: the paper bag trick (which I have been shamelessly unleashing on various young relatives over the years); the Austrian dance routine; the ‘two men in bed reading newspapers;’ even ‘Mr Memory,’ who knows everything about anything…. given enough prompts. From the opening scenes, I’m laughing helplessly, a condition I find myself in until the duo finally dance offstage, legs akimbo in time-honoured fashion.

This is a great big warm hug of a show. If you’re already fans of M & W, you’ll have a whale of a time. If they are new to you – I suppose such a thing is possible – why not go along and see what all the fuss was about?

Your time machine awaits!

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney