Regularly drawing TV audiences in the 1970s that would these days be attainable only by royal funerals or England World Cup penalty shootouts, The Morecambe & Wise Show used the conceit of pretending the studio was a theatre. A gold curtain opened on to sketches that often spoofed stage musicals.
Reversing the image, Hamish McColl and Sean Foley’s The Play What I Wrote, a West End and Broadway hit 20 years ago, returns Eric and Ernie’s screen routines to the boards. The premise is that a failing comic double act – played by Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck, replacing the original’s McColl and Foley – lands a gig as a Morecambe & Wise tribute show; the second half is a full meticulous pastiche of the finale of a Christmas special.
Much material comes from the scripts by Eddie Braben, the brilliant scriptwriter who reimagined the comedians as a platonic married couple sharing a flat and a bed. Crucially, though, McColl and Foley can write new topical lines in perfect imitation of Braben; he would have loved the pun involving two tennis stars and a famous American play.
This revival is directed by Foley, a master of farce. At startling but comprehensible speed, wordplay, sight gags and slapstick constantly compete to top each other. The avalanche of laughs spans trick arms and legs, joke bread loaves, botched magic tricks and, hardest of all to replicate, the most sublime of Braben’s running gags. That involved classical actors – Glenda Jackson, Diana Rigg, Michael Redgrave – inveigled into delivering the anti-syntactical, arrhythmic lines of the plays “what” Ernie wrote.
A variety of famous faces will feature across the play’s run, but the production began with the joke at its absolute purest. Tom Hiddleston – the joyous shock of the audience that it was genuinely him filling the theatre – spoke the cod-French tosh of the revolutionary epic A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple as if he were still giving his Coriolanus (an entry on the actor’s CV that the script isn’t going to miss). Hiddleston’s vocal double-takes at what he finds himself saying, rank with those of Dame Glenda in the 1972 Christmas show; he also gets double entendres the BBC would surely have refused to let Braben use. As Hiddleston presumably has other things to do than guest star every night, it was good to see his perfect comic turn being filmed for future use.
In the first night audience, I was intrigued to spot another significant star, collar high and baseball cap low, who Birmingham may presumably see at some point. But, regardless of the guest, the constant central trio is worth the ticket. Herdman and Tuck beautifully meet the need to inhabit the spirit of Eric (gangly irascibility) and Ernie (gentle self-delusion) without impersonating them. Mitesh Soni offers a glorious crowd of cameos, including Hollywood legends, the alleged producer of The Play What I Wrote, a menacing dog, a musician suffering harmonica interrupts and at one point a whole village.
Laughing so long and so loudly felt as energising and cleansing as going to the gym after a spell of vegetating. This show is the perfect therapeutic humour for these seriously unfunny times.
• At Birmingham Rep until 1 January.