Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde’s entertaining play about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore is the latest addition to the fast-growing theatrical sub-genre of shows about dead comedians.
In recent years the West End has seen plays about the Carry On stars, Morecambe and Wise, and Spike Milligan and the Goons, amongst others. Pete and Dud: Come Again is not only a tribute show but also an examination of the great comedy duo’s close yet troubled relationship on and off stage.
Expanded and revised from the original version staged at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, the play re-creates some of their sketches, while showing how underlying tensions eventually split up the partnership. Although not as dark as the recent Terry Johnson-directed TV drama about the pair, Not Only But Always, this show is another reminder of the melancholy and insecurity that lies behind many of our funniest performers.
Bartlett and Awde have given their work a clever structure. Set in 1982, Dudley Moore is being interviewed by the Wogan-like cheesy chat show host Tony Ferguson, so that (like Round the Horne at this venue a year ago) the theatre audience becomes the studio audience. Now an unlikely middle-aged Hollywood sex symbol, just nominated for an Oscar in Arthur, Moore reminisces about his earlier comedy career with Peter Cook, whom he hasn’t seen for a while.
In ‘flashbacks’ we see how the two made their name in the hugely successful 1960 satirical revue Beyond the Fringe, with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, before going on to do several TV series together and films such as Bedazzled. Just before the interval Cook hijacks the interview from the back of the audience and is invited up on stage.
Afterwards we hear about (and also see re-enacted) their notoriously scatological double act Derek and Clive, but by the mid-1970s the partnership falls apart, mainly due to Cook’s drunken indiscipline. Moore went on to become a film star but the resentful Cook was unable to move on and wanted them to get back together again.
Although both Cook and Moore had many girlfriends and several wives, the play implies that the relationship they had with each other was the most important one in their lives. (Significantly, though we hear about their lovers we never actually see any of the women concerned in this all-male production.) In many ways this is a portrait of a marriage, where even though the odd couple in question often bicker, their shared sense of humour – a mix of the satirical and the surreal – binds them together.
The diminutive Moore, a bundle of nervous energy with a working-class Essex accent, complements the tall, languid, public-school-educated Cook: a comedy partnership made in heaven, as we are reminded by the brilliantly re-staged skits in Owen Lewis’s slick production. But Cook’s sometimes cruel condescension and competitive jealousy, later worsened by alcoholism, constantly undermines Moore’s ability to enjoy their success.
Performance-wise, Kevin Bishop turns in an uncanny impersonation of Moore, with his strangulated voice and mugging looks, suggesting a borderline manic-depressive who has always found humour to be the best therapy. Tom Goodman-Hill – from Channel 4’s hit-and-miss sketch show Spoons and due to play Lancelot when the Monty Python musical Spamalot arrives at the Palace Theatre later this year – does not try to imitate Cook but he still conveys a good sense of this most original and influential comedian, who self-destructed early.