‘Welcome back to the West End. It’s so lovely to have you here’ a husky female voice projects across the auditorium of London’s Edwardian Noel Coward Theatre. Between watching The Comeback at a Sunday matineée, and writing this review on the Monday afternoon, surging coronavirus cases have led to the re-closure of theatres and entertainment venues in the capital. The logic behind the decision cannot be faulted, but it feels particularly cruel after offering a glimmer of hope to performers after the November lockdown, to so quickly snuff it back out again.
After traipsing through rain-splattered streets, my head spinning with talk of no-deal Brexit and London going into Tier Three, walking into the stunning cream and gold auditorium of the theatre is so wonderfully uplifting. 80s bangers blast out the hi-fi, while I sip on a cool Camden Hells from the theatre bar. Smiling stewards bustle around in visors, ensuring everyone makes it to their seats and nobody’s face mask drops an inch.
And what of the play itself? Well, it’s brilliant. An uproarious farce from faultless comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen, about trying to make it big in the creative industries. They play fictionalised versions of themselves, who are out supporting two old timers ‘Jimmy and Sid’ (also played by Alex and Ben) as they perform their touring comedy show in the town of Diddlington. News soon reaches the four performers that top Hollywood director Clint Mackay is the audience. The show then revolves around each comedy duo trying to outsmart the other in order to be the ones who get the chance to perform for Clint – and might, therefore, be scouted for something bigger.
With puns, mishearings, and endless use of anticlimax – the show is a masterclass in absurdist situational comedy and wit. Backstage becomes front stage, actors interchange, and constant mix-ups fuel an hour and a half of inoffensive hilarity. Alex is the more immediately silly of the two, with Ben ever trying to steer him back on track. However, Ben brings out a greater level of absurdity in sequences involving hypnotism or mysteriously shrinking objects, all the while holding a masterfully straight face. The duo’s vigorous chemistry is akin to that of Ant and Dec – but they tell more ambitiously bizarre jokes than the Geordie duo.
Rosanna Vize’s set is a self-consciously paired-back stage, with dressing tables in the wings visible to the audience, and a large red velour curtain curtain across the back. It has clearly been put on with a shoe-string budget, and with the ability to move in and out of the space with little notice. In this sense it is thoroughly appropriate for staging in the midst of a pandemic – but the content is unrelated to the difficulties of today’s world. Indeed, the show emits a real old school charm by featuring Jimmy and Sid. The older duo’s gentle humour, Northern twangs and warm humour paid homage – rather than mocked – the routines of much-loved performers like Victoria Wood, Ken Dodd and Bruce Forsyth.
The Comeback allows two immensely talented, up-and-coming actors to talk live on stage about the charms, eccentricities, and general fun of their industry – all the while telling a genuinely hilarious and engaging stage play. In that sense, producer Sonia Friedman has a two-fold victory: She has put on a great show, and explored why putting on great shows is so important. The play celebrates performance for the sake of it – and there is a real magic to sharing laughter with strangers in a room. Though cancelled for the time being, if The Comeback returns to the London stage, it is certainly one not to be missed.
The Comeback was playing at Noel Coward Theatre before it was paused due to new Covid restrictions. For more information and tickets, see The Comeback website.