Ian Ashpital

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