‘There’s too much lust for money in this world and not enough fun’, remarks Eric Morecambe in one of this warm Edinburgh Fringe hit’s more on the nose moments. He’s visiting his long-time comic partner in hospital, hopping into bed, cracking jokes, wigging on Ernie’s wig and generally trying to cheer up the man he shared a stage with for more than four decades. As classic routines fire off like Christmas crackers in between bleeping heart monitors and decaying grapes, it’s as bittersweet as candied peel, but a tenderly observed and heartfelt introduction to a play that’s more than a little lopsided.
Jonty Stephens (Morecambe) and Ian Ashpitel (Wise) developed this show after mastering their impersonations in sketches for family and friends, and the atmosphere of living room knees up and achingly affectionate personal tribute has been carried over. Stephens and Ashpitel swerve away whenever a grey cloud looms, their script playing as free and easy as Eric does in his subtly spectral visit to Ern. The first act flirts with something deeper and darker, but the writers drop the scarlet back-cloth all too soon, and the second act evades stormy weather for the sunshine of an extended M&W routine, where Stephens and Ashpitel can crack out their stunning embodiment of the duo.
The act is marvellously recreated, an almost pitch-perfect rendition that bounces through the best of their front-of-curtain material. Don’t expect more than a splash of song, and there are no props more elaborate than Morecambe’s famous paper bag, which Stephens manipulates in a gleeful love-letter to the sure-fire set-piece, but it’s an hilarious forty minutes that’s over all too quickly.
If Ashpitel is just a fraction less sharp and irascible than Wise, he masters his pomposity and fragility with skill, particularly in the first act, where Little Ern looks Littler and more vulnerable than ever. Stephens is so good it’s genuinely unnerving. He’s mastered every intonation, every dip of the head and flicker of the spectacles – even the furrows on his brow look picture perfect. There are genuinely moments in the second act where Ashpitel and Stephens fall away entirely, and the illusion is absolute.
But when Ashpitel and Stephens skip dance away to “Bring Me Sunshine” and the house lights rise, there’s a palpable sense of anti-climax and incompleteness. It’s doubtlessly a conscious decision to go out with a smile and a song, but the knowledge that Simon Scullion’s pallor-green hospital set lurks behind the red velvet nags and requires an answer. By dividing the show so starkly between pathos and razzmatazz, the writing duo have left their show hanging and emotionally insufficient. There’s no need to break out the black crepe, but some acknowledgement of the dark shadings of act one to cap off act two would offer at least a glimmer of satisfaction.
It’s possible that the shadows of two previous dramas – Tim Whitnall’s one-man masterpiece Morecambe and the BBC’s 2011 superlative teleplay Eric and Ernie – have dimmed the light of a show that aims for celebration rather than weight, and if that’s the case it’s a shame. Because, even with its failings, Eric and Little Ern is a sincere and accomplished tribute to a comedy sensation that brushed up a kinder, gentler world. Not the world of the 1950’s or 60’s, which was scarcely kinder, but against that world of Saturday teatimes and Christmas Day evenings that Morcambe and Wise so sunnily illuminated.