A Hollywood director unexpectedly pops into an English regional theater to see a show. The actors get wind of his presence, thereby unleashing a chaotic, show-stealing performance of one-upmanship. That was Ken Russell’s framing device when he famously turned Sandy Wilson’s sweet but archaic musical comedy “The Boy Friend” into a fitfully inspired, often wildly self-indulgent 1971 MGM movie musical. It’s also the plot of the new West End play “The Comeback” — but the similarities end there between Russell’s juddering flop and this deliriously funny and gloriously well-played comedy.
Writer-performers Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen easefully play young whippersnappers “Ben” and “Alex,” a struggling double-act booked as the warm-up to a once-beloved, now elderly double-act Jimmy and Sid who, touring the country, have wound up in the fictional hick town of Diddington. For the first part of the evening, it’s a case of predictable good fun as the younger pair bicker and squabble about the state of their act and wonder what happened to their dreams.
Switching between offstage and onstage simply by means of a lighting change, their attempts to brighten up their own act by working up new material are deliciously silly and built around their stock-in-trade: bright, fast sketch comedy which leads briskly in an expected direction only to veer off suddenly into a gleefully surreal punchline that you never see coming, but which is also gloriously logical.
Ever-hopeful, sweetly buoyant Alex is counterbalanced by the pessimistic neuroticism of taller, more hangdog Ben, and the pair of them swiftly establish complicity with the audience while rattling out gags at a delightfully fast pace. All that’s to be expected, since the two performers have won literally millions of fans this year via 70-second Twitter sketches about the perils of Zoom and communication in the time of Covid.
But there’s a hint of things to come when, by means of a change in accents, hats and physicality, they also start playing Jimmy and Sid, most of whose sweetly groan-worthy material has seen better days.
The moment all four discover the famous director sitting out front, everything, most especially everyone’s rampant ambition, instantly ratchets up several gears. And when Ben “accidentally” knocks out Sid, it’s not so much a case of rivalry as total back-stabbing, and suddenly, in rising director Emily Burns’ expert hands, we have two actors playing four characters in a furiously funny, wonderfully escalating, high-stakes, “Noises Off”-style farce.
Sight gags, impersonations, door-slamming, comedy chases: all the ingredients are in play with increasingly crazy situations growing satisfyingly out of the initial material. It’s all an inch away from chaos and, since it’s perfectly timed and ruthlessly controlled, uproariously funny, not least the lassoing of an audience member into the mayhem — who turns out to be a nightly changing celebrity guest. At the performance reviewed it was TV host Graham Norton, while Ian McKellen and Joanna Lumley have already pitched in.
It seems a wonder, firstly, that this duo known for rapid sketches have, thanks to two years of development via producer Sonia Friedman who found them at the Edinburgh Fringe, managed to write a satisfying, beautifully constructed, full-length comedy. It’s further heartening to find that their sharp observation of contemporary behavior is suffused with affection, not least for the era of the old-school comics whose heyday was long before they were born.
Opening cold in the West End with strict social distancing of the mask-wearing, temperature-checked audience, it was a producing gamble that was about to pay off handsomely when the U.K. government, having actively encouraged producers to re-open theaters safely, suddenly changed its mind and its rules once again, closing all London theaters just days after the show’s opening.
Friedman has released an unequivocal, strongly worded press statement: “This feels like a final straw: proof that this government does not understand theater and the existential crisis it is facing. Its short-sightedness is starting to look like serial mismanagement.” In the same statement she has vowed to bring the show back as soon as can be allowed. When, not if, that happens, she has a hugely welcome, heartwarming hit on her hands.
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