Eric And Little Ern: The Review What We Wrote
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Christmas isn't Christmas without three things: A tree. Morecambe. Wise. Following a successful Yuletide run at the Vaudeville last year, Eric and Little Ern is back for 2014, this time at St James Theatre.
Like the legendary duo themselves, there are two very distinct halves to this show. Act one is the more disconcerting of the two — we find Ernie (Ian Ashpitel) nearing the end in a hospital bed and visited by the ghost of his dead partner (a spookily accurate Jonty Stephens). If that all sounds a bit Christmas Carol to you, it's really not. Eric doesn't come bearing caveats from the afterlife, just a nostalgia-laced back story about how the two grew from end-of-the-pier likely lads to a duo who racked up over 20 million viewers for their 1977 TV Christmas special.
Trivia-wise there's nothing new, even for entry level Morecambe and Wise fans (everyone knows about Eric's dicky ticker and that the young Ernie was hailed as Britain's answer to Mickey Rooney) but that hardly matters. Classic sketches are weaved into reminisces — Grieg's Piano Concerto by Grieg gets an airing behind the back of the sofa, and the most famous of the bedroom sketches ("He's not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed, is he?") is played out in what is presumably the short, fat hairy one's death bed. It's smartly done, and we really can't repeat enough how Stephens and Ashpitel are uncannily like the real McCoys. Yet although the delivery is on the mark, the morbid situation feels at odds, the skits lack that magic ingredient, and the laughs are diluted.
When the pair return for the second half, it's like we've walked into Television Centre in the 1970s (in a good way, mind). Gone is the stuffy hospital setting — here are Morecambe and Wise as we'll always remember them — two well-tailored clowns mucking about in front of a curtain, with clumsiness rehearsed to within an inch of its life. Stephens and Ashpitel are physically closer to the audience and appear all the more authentic for it — every detail from Eric's waggle of the glasses to Ernie's little throat clears. Gone is any kind of attempt at a narrative, and gone too are the jarring gag/Ernie's-about-to-snuff-it segues. Instead, we get the soliloquy from Hamlet ("To be or not to be, that is the question. Thank you."), Eric's paper bag trick and some delightful dance numbers (again the rehearsed bumbling is uncannily accurate). The result is twice as many laughs. OK, this segment conspicuously lacks the maltreated star guests that were a staple of the original shows, but then how many Glenda Jackson or Peter Cushing impersonators can there be?
Just like Morecambe and Wise's career, Eric and Little Ern takes a while to warm up. When it does, it's joyful to watch. And just like those classic BBC shows, this theatre production merits repeating every single Christmas.
Eric and Little Ern is on at St James Theatre, Palace Street, SW1E 5JA, until 11 January. Tickets are priced £20-£45. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 20 December 2014