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Review: The Comeback (Noël Coward Theatre)

The new play comes courtesy of double act The Pin

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen
© Marc Brenner

For reasons that need not detain us here, I've been watching old Morecambe and Wise routines recently, and marvelling at the ebb and flow that made them one of the funniest double acts ever. Watching them in their late TV heyday, you can see all the work down the years, the smoothing and shaping that made them fit together like two pieces of a complicated puzzle.

There's something fascinating about the bond that makes two people into one perfect mechanism for delivering humour – and the relationship behind the scenes that has forged that instinctive understanding.

That's what Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen – two Radio 4 funny-men collectively known as The Pin – explore in this endearingly silly play. It is about the comeback tour of one set of comedians – Jimmy and Syd – and the struggling young comedians "Ben" and "Alex" who are the support act. All the comics are played by Ashenden and Owen in a piece that is simultaneously a tribute to the double act, and to the down-at-heel theatrical world in which they operate.

The scene is the stage at Didlington Arts, a small venue conjured by Rosanna Vize's appropriately tacky design. You can almost feel the stickiness of the floor and see the wear in the badly-hung red curtain. As the action moves between stage and backstage, Prema Mehta's lighting marks the changes. Emily Burns tightly-organised direction keeps the entire show on the road.

It begins slowly with hapless "Alex" mucking up every punchline, as the duo run through a series of lame gags, trying to build a new routine that will finally bring them success. His puppy-dog enthusiasm is a marked contrast to Ben's tolerant professional. Then we meet Jimmy and Syd, who in sparkly red hats and jackets, are dusting off some similarly tired material, trying to rebuild their 70s heyday. Accelerating mayhem breaks out when both pairs discover there is a Hollywood director in the audience and the young hopefuls try to put the old-timers out of action so they alone can impress him.

It sounds silly, and it is. At times the pace flags and the piece feels more like an extended sketch rather than a fully shaped entertainment. But for the most part it is clever and marvellously warm-hearted, full of surreal joy in what makes people laugh. A long sequence in which props are handed from one side of the stage to another, shrinking as they go, is a simple yet sophisticated pleasure. At one point, a member of the audience is roped in to help out; they are in fact a specially placed celebrity, in our case, Clare Balding, who played along with the madness with admirably straight-faced aplomb.

It's a nice gimmick – other participants have included Ian McKellen and Danny Dyer – but the real pleasures of The Comeback lie elsewhere. In mucking around with the dynamics of two neatly mirrored double acts (the straight man of one is the funny guy of the other) it coaxes out an original and gentle humour, while also hinting at the amount of feeling and affection that binds the best comedy duos together.

For all its smartness, it has at its centre a sweetness and an innocent enjoyment of comedy for comedy's own sake that feels the perfect antidote to the complicated world we are living in, a vaccine against cynicism. Tier 3 restrictions mean it has now vanished from the stage, but it will come back.

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