Monday, 2 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: An Evening With Eric And Ern - The Grand Theatre, Blackpool.

I, joined by the majority of the British - and global - population, of a certain era, I am sure, have long admired the great acts of ‘music hall’ and, since watching Daniel Taylor’s emulation of the late Tommy Cooper (The Tommy Cooper Show) live at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre whilst on its tour across the UK, have also had a desire to discover and bring together a selection of these ‘tributes’ to celebrate the late great performers gone by, especially after the recent attempts to reincarnate ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, without the likes of Sir Bruce Forsyth, Sir Ken Dodd and the rest, when they were still with us. That desire has halted due to the lack of discovery of such acts...until now!

With documentaries, and even films, being made about the variety acts of the good old days, why would you not want to keep their spirit and legacy alive on-stage? That is why I jumped at the chance to see ‘An Evening of Eric & Ern’ and return to the home of variety, Blackpool...and boy was it a treat.

Starring Jonty Stephens as the great joker Eric Morecombe and his partner-in-crime Ian Ashpitel as the more straight-laced but calm and gentle Ernie Wise - who both met at Birmingham School of Speech & Drama - the show is set, with direction from Daniel Clarkson - (who is also part of a comedy duo called ‘Dan & Jeff’ from BBC’s CBBC and renowned for their ‘Potted’ tours) - with their trademark red stage curtain providing the backdrop, embroidered with gold ‘M’ and ‘W’ detail, a grand piano and a small table with a phone on it. This, in the absence of anything more grand, like a staircase (seen on the appearance of Penelope Keith), was all that is required to pull off the greats, of such fame as their own TV show and Christmas Specials. That is because, although simple, it is the jokes that make the show, along with physical gags from both, but we are led into a false arena as the jokes that we are left giggling and belly-laughing over are actually very carefully constructed, rehearsed and cleverly dissected and thought out. That is the true magic of real comedy. Based on mistaking, mishearing and the double meanings of phrases and words, and the euphemistic nature of them making them funny, these actors and their mammoth predecessors have us in the palms of their hands (when their hand isn’t up the back of a ventriloquist puppet, that is).

Endorsed by the estates of both gentlemen, billed undoubtedly as “the greatest comedy icons”, the programme - which we received with thanks, with a greeting from the actors - gives a well-deserved commendation to comedy writers Eddie Braben and Hills & Green (Sid Green and Dick Hills) and includes quotes from showbiz legends like Lord Michael Grade, Barry Cryer and Ben Elton. I had the pleasure however, of hearing fellow audience members of all ages reminiscing about the times they stopped everything on a Sunday evening to watch the lads, and debate what sketch or joke is the best or has a lasting impact on them. This is what entertainment is all about...memories and enjoyment.

We discover that Ian Ashpitel is from Leigh and Jonty Stephens from Warwickshire, but their credits, spanning over 30 years, are far more diverse and ridden with culture. Their strong chemistry is evident and was even then, for “when asked if they were a double act, they would reply, in unison, ‘No!’”. They began performing separately but came together to play the memorable duo for a golf society variety show and later progressed to create a show called ‘Eric And Little Ern’, supported by Martin Clarkson (this show’s executive producer), which they performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, before London’s West End for two seasons, before a UK tour and return to London - it was even nominated for an Olivier! With such sketches as the iconic bedroom (and, I suspect, breakfast) scenes, the show was a hit and so, the second half was made into ‘An Evening Of Eric And Ern’, in front of the famous curtains that Eric keeps disappearing behind and reappearing from.

With choreography from Nicola Keen, the show is an unmistakable match to the actions, routines and memories of their TV show and those performances at The Palladium, including songs like ‘Positive Thinking’, ‘Following You Around’ and ‘Bring Me Sunshine’. Guest singer for the tour is Rebecca ‘Becky’ Neale, who has been on cruise ships for the past 5 years and that is where the pair met her whilst working together. She has also worked as a voice artist and featured as Daisy in BBC’s Father Brown. Her pre-interval performance of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Send In The Clowns’ from A Little Night Music is made a mockery of with the inclusion of the boys entering dressed as clowns and putting modelling balloons in her hands, music like the debacle of Dame Shirley Bassey’s shoe getting caught and being replaced by a workman’s boot.

Other sketches include the usual comical reference to Ernie’s supposed hairpieces, his height and short fat, hairy legs, Des in Des O’Connor meaning Desperate, the frantic wiggling of Eric spectacles and the brilliant ‘ice cream man siren’ gag, Mr Memory and, of course, the Andre Previn/Grieg’s Piano Concerto one, in his absence. There could have been so much more but what we got was great, even with a few microphone problems meaning Ashpitel had to repeat Neale’s lines, on two occasions, as questions so they didn’t get completely missed.

With experience, highlighted in the programme, in Peaky Blinders (Stephens) and Mr Selfridge (Ashpitel as Mr Hardcastle), among so much more, it is clear that they love what they do and that shows. We thank them for their entertainment, congratulate them on a successful run and show and look forward to seeing them again soon. 

Reviewer - John Kristof
on - 1/9/19

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