On The Ceiling is the debut play of the actor, writer and comedian Nigel Planer, a man who it is hard to write about without envisioning the words Neil from The Young Ones wedged between his first and last names in inverted commas. But while Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson have stuck with their familiar shtick over the years – continuing to kick each other in the balls and smack each other in the face with heavy objects – Planer has taken a different path in this, his new work for the stage, which is transferring to the West End after a successful spell at the Birmingham Rep.
Set in 1508, On The Ceiling is the story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Lapo and Loti, played by Ron Cook and Ralf Little, work for Michelangelo. It’s their job to do the plastering, the outlining, to lug things up ladders. They’re a pair of Renaissance also-rans, their hard graft overlooked by history.
Planer twists it further, rendering their conversation three parts innuendo to one part bickering, basically the banter of the modern building site; it’s a premise that may have made for a hilarious short sketch, but unfortunately when stretched out for nearly two hours it feels decidedly thin.
The chief problem seems to be one of indecision. The play can’t make up its mind over whether it wants to be a cheerfully anachronistic period romp in the Blackadder mould or a more meditative piece about art and the immortality it affords, philosophising about the nature of the creative process.
The first scene sees Lapo and Loti slagging off their boss, who has failed to arrive on time for work. A kind of Waiting For Michelangelo. In their eyes their employer is an incompetent, temperamental diva, as “mad as a tadpole’s fart” and ripe for mockery; Lapo’s impression of Michelangelo as a kind of mincing Mick Jagger is amusing. But the jokes get tired and the repeated allusions to the fact that Michelangelo may have been a little bit gay soon grate. The comedic potential of the word ‘buttock’ is also overestimated.
In stark contrast Planer clearly knows his stuff when it comes to art history. There’s a wealth of information about the technical process of painting frescoes and some surprisingly compelling sequences given over to sketching and charcoal rubbing and so forth. But it’s as if he doesn’t believe this is enough to hold the audiences’ attention, so the play quickly retreats into wank gag territory, soon falling back on repetitive and unnecessary dialogue.
Despite this Ralf Little and Ron Cook make an amiable onstage partnership; they have a warm rapport and Cook in particular gives a solid comic performance as Lapo – a character whose gruff exterior masks his commitment to his work. There’s also a very funny musical interlude midway through that provides a necessary break in pace. But that and some very well-executed visual effects at the end can’t really salvage what is a meandering, overlong and only intermittently amusing experience.