Double Act – 5 stars

Wimbledon Studio Theatre, London.

It is 1972, and comedy double act Douglas and Adams are at the end of their successful summer season tour. They are riding high, with another TV series in the pipeline. But one of them has some news that will tear things apart.

Martyn Grahame’s script cracks along, full of witty banter, nicely observed characterisations and an emotional depth that belies the seemingly lightweight setting of the play. In a series of well-constructed scenes and flashbacks we see how the double act first meet, the highs and lows in their career, glimpses of the ominous secret on which the story hangs, all leading to a final sequence in which the two comics perform their routine on stage, which, thanks to a simple use of dramatic irony, is both very funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

Grahame and Sean Hanlon as Arthur Douglas and Eddie Adams respectively, are wonderful. They display warmth, complexity and cracking comic timing. Plus, essentially, a real sense of love and respect between the two comics. Called to mind is the obvious affection between Eric and Ernie, and at the same time the ‘best mate silliness’ of Vic and Bob. It is credit to the skill of these two actors that Douglas and Adams prompt such favourable comparisons, but at the same time never make you feel that they are attempting to emulate any of them.

Robyn Ainslie Doherty as Arthur’s wife Shirley, and Katie Whitehouse as Eddie’s fiancee Joanne, are both superb. They do far more than play supporting roles, as could so easily be the case in a play like this. The fact that the characters are also on tour with the double act as their backing singers helps bring added intensity and complexity to their professional lives as well as their private lives, and both actresses give perfectly pitched performances – nicely understated and always played on the right side of sentimentality.

Steven Winnie gives a cracking performance as Ronnie Stature, the pair’s manager and sometime fall guy in their act. A failed comic, dancing dangerously with alcoholism, Winnie manages to pull off an array of conflicting emotions – bitterness, optimism, resentment, forced friendship, professional courtesy – with ease, adding a real sense of poignancy to the piece.

This play is more than just a double act. It’s a real ensemble piece; tight, well-paced, polished. The script is well observed and finely written. The direction is confidently handled, and the performances – if you hadn’t already got this – are top drawer. If you get the chance, and I hope you do, see this play.

(originally posted 23 October 2011)

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