By BRUCE DENNILL
Morecambe / Studio Theatre, Montecasino / Starring Craig Urbani / Directed by Alan Swerdlow
The obvious challenge to mounting a show about British comedian and variety star Eric Morcambe is the source material’s vintage (Morecambe and Wise began their partnership in 1941 and Morcambe passed away in 1984) and the exposure a contemporary South African audience – years later and a hemisphere away from the action – might have had to the hugely successful double act.
But take out the date-related references and the stylistic tics and what you are left with, where Morcambe and Craig Urbani, who plays him in this production of Tim Whitnall’s Olivier Award-winning piece – is entertaining content, delivered with precise comic timing, warmth and an enormous amount of skill.
The play sees Morcambe, late of this world, examining an old theatre – his apparent address for the afterlife. He looks back over his existence and career, telling all the famous stories, playing all the characters and interacting with all the props. The script is a massively challenging one for a solo performer, packed to capacity with enough cues and marks for to keep a cast of five or six busy.
Urbani, who theatre fans will be thrilled to see back on stage rather than confined to TV screens, appears to relish the task, handling dozens of props (including a puppet representation of Ernie Wise), speaking in half a dozen completely convincing accents and pulling off at least as many characters with schizophrenic ease. Items that have served their purpose are turfed into the wings – a necessary act, as Urbani’s performance fills up a large amount of space.
While the plot is squarely centred on the details of Morcambe’s life, what that life – and thus the play – is really about is the magic of theatre and the difficulties involved in creating and sustaining that magic. And regardless of how much audience members know about the old routines and the celebrated skits referenced or acted out onstage, it’s the awareness that of the quality of the craft being observed, generated live and without gimmicks, that makes this one-man show special.
It’s a towering performance from Urbani, and director Alan Swerdlow has ensured that a great deal of complexity is cleverly compressed into a slick, smart package that leaps out of the niche – classic British humour – that some observers might feel they’re not qualified to observe and comment on.
There will be those who don’t get the humour, but there shouldn’t be a single audience member who leaves without having had their belief in the magic of live theatre revived, or at least bolstered.