An affectionate homage to legendary comedy double act Morecambe & Wise, hit stage show The Play What I Wrote was co-written by Birmingham Rep Artistic Director Sean Foley and is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Sean is directing a major revival of the show at The Rep this Christmas. What’s On caught up with him to find out more...

Birmingham Rep will celebrate Christmas with the first major revival of smash-hit stage show The Play What I Wrote.

The production will be helmed by The Rep’s Artistic Director Sean Foley, who co-wrote the original show with Hamish McColl, and acted in the West End production. 

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, The Play What I Wrote was a massive success, winning a host of awards and playing to packed houses in London, on Broadway and out on tour.
“It’s a significant anniversary of the original production,” says Sean. “And it’s great to revisit that material. It was, and is, a truly great piece of comedy theatre.”

The story is a homage to legendary comedy double act Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

“It’s not an impersonation of Morecambe & Wise, so it’s not a tribute show in that sense,” says Sean. “There is an unknown or failing double act who are on the verge of splitting up. One of them wants to be a serious play writer, just like Ernie, and one just loves larking about and making people laugh, just like Eric.

“The show is about how they struggle to put on this Ernie character’s play, which is this disastrously stupid French Revolution kind of epic, and the Eric character is constantly trying to disrupt this and put on a comedy show.”

The Morecambe & Wise television shows were famous for Ernie’s ‘plays wot I wrote’, which would feature huge stars of the day being set up for a comedy fall by the duo. Sean and Hamish ingeniously included this element in the stage show - and the production rapidly became famous for its mystery guest appearances.

“You can never promise who is going to be there because even when we were doing it in London we never knew week to week who we would get - but the level of guest star was phenomenal. We had Kylie and Sting, who were brilliant, Ralph Fiennes, and then we went to Broadway and it was Liam Neeson and Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum. And we had some amazing people on the tour. I mean Roger Moore did it with us on tour - it could be anyone.

“The guest star element brings a wonderful kind of liveness and almost an anarchy to the theatre. They go on stage and they are barely rehearsed. It’s not just a walk-on and nod - they are in this play for 20 minutes and they have to really deliver, so there’s a kind of mad, febrile pressure. 

“It’s like doing a first night every night because there’s a new guest star. You never quite know what’s going to happen. That’s wonderful because that’s celebrating the very liveness of theatre right before your eyes.”

Sean is remaining tight-lipped about which guests Birmingham Rep audiences can expect in this revival: “It’s a genuine surprise when whoever it is walks out on stage. I will certainly be asking some of those original brilliant people who’ve starred before. But also there’s a whole new raft of stars who have emerged in the past few years - many of whom genuinely love the show. 

“A few months ago I was talking to Benedict Cumberbatch, and he was a young actor who came to see The Play What I Wrote, and he said he totally loved it and he’s a Morecambe & Wise fan. So I locked that away in the brain and thought, ‘when I get to it I might give you a ring and see if you’re up for it’.”

The Morecambe & Wise Christmas Specials became an institution, with their show on 25 December 1977 viewed by more than half of the UK population. Sean is hoping to recreate some of that festive magic at The Rep: “We’re going to put on a fantastic show for this 20th anniversary production. We’re using our original script and I’m talking to Hamish and we’ll be updating it. We have a few new tricks up our sleeve. We slightly redeveloped the show when we went to Broadway with it,  adding some bells and whistles, so people have that to look forward to. 

“The appeal of Morecambe & Wise at Christmas was legendary. This show does have that wonderful Christmas vibe to it, and I’m sure there will be a few references to Christmas to look out for.”

So what does Sean believe is the appeal of Morecambe & Wise?

“I think there was something benign and generous without being anodyne about their comedy. The way that they basically sent up showbusiness and the acting profession was something that people love. Everyone from Laurence Olivier down thought they were two of the greatest performers of their age, and they absolutely were. 

“They were brilliantly funny people, and that is the attraction. So many of their sketches or phrases have become folklore and are handed down, and there’s barely a year when a new piece of footage isn’t unearthed or a new documentary made.

“There will be some people, maybe younger, who don’t know Morecambe & Wise, but even with those people I can guarantee that this show will give them that sense of who they were just through the inhabitation of their comic world and the fun of that. That is at the heart of the show.”

Featuring Thom Tuck, Dennis Herdman and Mitesh Soni, The Play What I Wrote will be the first production Sean has directed at The Rep since taking over the helm two years ago. And he is looking forward to sharing it with new audiences: “This show has been one of the highlights of my career and it’s great to be able to stage it at Birmingham Rep. What audiences can expect from it is laughs. The plot is the hook to hang your hat on, with the hat being as many laughs as we can fit into an hour and 40 minutes.”

The Play What I Wrote shows at The Rep, Birmingham, from Sat 27 November to Sat 1 January, and then at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, from Mon 24 to Sat 29 January.