Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen in 'The Comeback.' (Photo by Marc Brenner)

'The Comeback' at the Noel Coward Theatre is a madcap respite

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf
The Comeback? More like The Shutdown, if Tuesday night's performance this week was any gauge, given that London theatreland went dark yet again as of the next morning. That decision was in accordance with tier 3 restrictions prohibiting people from gathering in playhouses, even though the "sold out" sign in front of the Noel Coward Theatre was met, upon entry into the auditorium, with plenty of deliberately empty seats in accordance with COVID-era protocol pertaining to social distancing and the like; the audience, as expected, was masked.
So this review can for the moment be only advisory, pending the resumption of performances as soon as it is deemed safe to do so. And this sweet if slight 90-minute evening of comedy is itself a place-filler intended to keep the Noel Coward warm until its longer-term tenant, Dear Evan Hansen, can itself start up again: musicals are having to be especially slow to resume performances during the pandemic due to the obstacles they pose to sizable casts and orchestras - and economics necessitating fuller houses than taped-off seats can generally allow.
The Comeback for its part exists in the tradition of madcap West End entertainments like The Play What I Wrote, even though that tribute to the English comic double-act of Morecambe and Wise did brave a Broadway run in 2003 in front of audiences who most likely had no idea who the duo were that were being saluted. First seen on the Edinburgh Festival fringe, the current sketch show casts its two young performers, Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen, as - you guessed it! - Ben and Alex, who are there to lend support to a veteran comic duo, Jimmy and Sid, who are also played by the show's two authors. Things come to a head in the (fictional) burg of Diddington where the arthritic older pair must vie with these upstarts for the attention of a big deal Hollywood honcho who happens to be in attendance: quite how that person ever found his way to Diddington is a question best not examined too closely.
At the start, the comedy plays on the separate personas of the eternally fresh-faced Owen - in real life, the son of the much-loved Olivier Award-winning actress Patricia Hodge - and the taller, anxious-seeming Ashenden, who is less inclined than his beaming colleague to take things in his stride. Words are repeatedly misunderstood (usually because they are taken too literally), props get tossed back and forth, and one pair of stand-ups gets mistaken for the other: a further test of credibility that the prevailing good will of the enterprise allows us to overlook.
As with The Play That Goes Wrong, Emily Burns's production introduces a celebrity guest each performance, whom keen-eyed playgoers might have noticed on Tuesday seated at the end of a row near the front before she was pressed into (not very time-consuming) duty. I'm referring to the British broadcaster and author Clare Balding, whose high sartorial style - this woman clearly knows how to hold an audience before she has even spoken a word - deserves an Olivier all its own. More could be done with the good-natured comic demeaning (all in good fun) of our special guest, but perhaps it's asking too much to expect a repeat of the depredations visited upon "Christine Patterson," in One Man, Two Guvnors, a scripted event in Richard Bean's play that has set the bar impossibly high for conjoining actors with a seemingly random audience member. (And to be fair, the actress playing Christine belonged to that play's cast, whereas Balding presumably just did as she was told.)
Unhelpful comparisons have been made between The Comeback and Noises Off, which don't really serve either show in view of the elaborate architecture of Michael Frayn's three-act classic and the comparatively slim if likable proceedings here. That's meant in no way to criticize Owen and Ashenden's very welcome achievement but, instead, to place it in context as we await the comeback for The Comeback that surely lies in wait.
Photo credit: Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen in The Comeback. (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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