Eric Morecambe died (aged 58) in 1984 and Ernie Wise (aged 73) in 1999, but their wonderful Morecambe and Wise double act lives on in endless television repeats and the occasional tribute show, such as this one, which celebrates the most loved comic duo since Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy.
M&W tuned directly into the mainstream of a rapidly disappearing consensus about popular culture, and it's fascinating to hear in this lively Edinburgh festival fringe import, featuring Jonty Stephens as Eric and Ian Ashpitel as Ernie, audience murmurs at the mention of Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante (beaker on nose at the keyboard), Vera Lynn (ie, the Second World War) and legendary Fleet Street columnist Marjorie Proops ("I didn't know she did…").
This is the entertainment equivalent of All Our Yesterdays and should probably come with a government health warning for the under 60s. The premise of Owen Lewis' tightly organised production is that Ernie, fading away in his hospital bed, is visited by the ghost of Eric, who died on stage in Tewksbury (that wasn't the first time either; Glasgow Empire 1949 anyone?).
Their bedside encounter prompts a series of recreations of "great moments": the rush to the window to declare that an ambulance with a blaring siren "won't sell many ice-creams going at that speed;" or the chaotic Grieg Piano Concerto ("I've seen better bands on a cigar") with the declaration that "I am playing all the right notes; but not necessarily in the right order."
Eric plays this line to Ernie, cutting out André "Preview" Previn, and Stephens has exactly the right sort of pendant, angular tautness (sideways on to the audience, usually winking straight into the camera) to bounce off the seraphic innocence of Ashpitel's deluded stooge, a playwright who hasn't dashed off 12 terrible new plays in a few hours, merely six before lunch and six afterwards.
The couple resemble Anton Rodgers, the horn-rimmed bespectacled actor, and Eddie Waring, the rugby league commentator ("It's an up and under…") as much as they do Eric and Ernie, but they recreate the rhythm and subtlety of the act with brilliant timing without, obviously, the distinctive magic, brutal competitiveness and pathos.
The show's a clever fraud, not a delirious reinvention, as was Kenneth Branagh's production of The Play What I Wrote. The first act hospital scene, mixed in with some of the famous sofa sketches, leads to a short second act variety turn and the inevitable finale of "Bring Me Sunshine," though you might have expected a more poignant exploitation of the depth of the stage in their departure.
Eric and Little Ern continues at the Vaudeville until 12 January