Theatre: The Right Size
They wowed the West End with their take on Eric and Ern. So can The Right Size make more magic with Kenneth Branagh and a mystical duck?
The Sunday Times, 9 October 2005
By Alastair McKay
There are a great many theories about the nature of physical comedy, but it comes down, in the end, to Ken Dodd's knees. Dodd had - and possibly still has - a routine in which his left knee spoke to his right knee. "But," says Hamish McColl, "he never put it at the top of the act. You've got to warm an audience up a lot for them to find it absolutely logical that two knees are talking to each other."
McColl is half of The Right Size, the comedy double act whose show 'Ducktastic!' - a rueful reflection on magic, directed by Kenneth Branagh - is about to open in London's West End. Expectations are high: the duo's last show, 'The Play What I Wrote', was nominated for a Tony after it transferred from London's West End to Broadway (shorn of its Morecambe and Wise references). The fact that the nomination was for "best special theatrical event" illustrates how difficult it is to categorise their work. Sean Foley, McColl's other half, says that people have been asking for years whether their work is theatre or comedy: "We couldn't help them with the answer. Then our own style emerged, and people realised, well, they are theatre and they are comedy. We're just not stand-ups. We have more than verbal gags: we have visual gags and sight gags, and a story. Somewhere, we hope, among all the stupidity and nonsense and fun, the audience is going, 'Oh, no, I'm kind of feeling for these two people in this terrible situation.'"
Foley and McColl met at clown school in Paris in the late 1980s, where they studied with Philippe Gaulier. "We did a month," says McColl. "We were drummed out," adds Foley. "We failed for not having big enough shoes. I'd forgotten my watery flower and had to go home."
They learnt enough to set up a small-scale theatre company, and produced the cult hit 'Stop Calling Me Vernon', about an old double act, followed by 'Do You Come Here Often?', in which two clowns were trapped for an eternity in the bathroom. In 'The Play What I Wrote', they again played a double act, with echoes of Eric and Ernie. The Hamish character believed he was a great playwright and wanted to go solo to fulfil his (nonexistent) talent. To stop him leaving, Sean agreed to stage his play, promising (without any expectation of it happening) that a guest star would arrive. The punch line was that a mystery guest did arrive.
Among those who volunteered for an evening of cheerful humiliation were Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Minnie Driver and Glenn Close. Foley and McColl's favourite guest was the show's director, Branagh, who delighted them by forgetting his first line: "I am Ken Branagh." Roger Moore was another favourite, adds McColl: "You have this great thing, that a man who you grew up watching on the television in safari suits becomes somebody that you can have a laugh with offstage." For Foley, Sting's appearance was memorable: "Finest moment of my entire career, Sting coming off stage and saying, 'Sean, I really love your ukulele-playing.'"
Branagh has fond memories of his turn as the butt of the joke: "They were relentless. Every other performer got three rehearsals, but they wouldn't tell me what they were going to say. As a result, I was a complete gibbering wreck. I had to come up with my own lines. They said, 'What are you doing in this new series?' I said, 'I'm Shackleton.' And they said, 'Well, we're all tired, mate.'"
Foley, McColl and Branagh are reunited in 'Ducktastic!', which does for Siegfried & Roy what 'The Play' did for Eric and Ern. It is not a direct tribute, but transplants the theatrical ambitions of the Las Vegas performers into a failing British magician. "Magicians of the century" Siegfried Fischbacher and Roy Horn performed at the Mirage hotel with a troupe of Bengal tigers until two years ago, when Horn suffered a stroke after being mauled by one of the cats. McColl's magician, CU Sassoon, operates at a lower level, performing with a magic duck. "There are illusions, which are basically trickery, but there is also real magic," says McColl. "The duck has qualities - nay, powers - that bamboozle the hapless magician and his assistant."
Foley and McColl visited the bright lights of Las Vegas and Blackpool to research the show. "Your natural inclination would be to say that Blackpool's not as good as Vegas, but that's not true," says McColl. "A lot of the performers were up there and better. We were surprised how tacky some shows in Vegas were."
"In Vegas," adds Foley, "a lot of the headline shows are Cirque du Soleil spectaculars, with huge budgets, in purpose-built theatres. The golden-age magic shows from the 1980s are a little bit passť. You're already dealing with a slightly dying art form."
The involvement of Branagh may surprise, but shouldn't. He has a great respect for comics (he cast Dodd as Yorick) and considers them to be "fantastically brave performers". Branagh finds it unremarkable that he should be involved in a comedy about a pier-end entertainer and a magic duck. "I always feel this is more my natural bent," he says. "At drama school, people thought this would be the way I would head, I guess out of having a strong streak of daftness. Unexplained silliness has always appealed to me."
Branagh believes that supplying an audience with two hours of "lunatic, daft, happy-making laughter" is an honourable ambition, and makes no greater claim for the material than that. He hopes the play will have the energy of the road movies of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
"It's a heightened world that we recognise, that we look at through a distorting mirror," he says. "Hamish and Sean occupy a particular comic universe that is benign without being sappy, and has its own sort of anarchy. Although they use the medium of a kind of throwback magic show, they do subvert it, making people run with the expected, then throwing the unexpected in and somehow creating a delicious mayhem."
Critics, being critics, have detected deeper meanings in the work of The Right Size, but Foley and McColl are quick to rebuff any suggestion that they might possess hidden depths. If they are postmodern, they say, then so was Plautus. Compare them to Sartre or Beckett, and they look the other way and call for Max Wall. Beckett, notes McColl, was fascinated with vaudeville too.
"One of the things we have searched for is a kind of authentic innocence, purity, clarity, that is not sentimental or gauche or ingratiating," says Branagh. "That is a feature of the comic world that Hamish and Sean love, where, basically, there's an assumption that people are good-hearted and that they respond to kindness and to fun."
"For us," says McColl, "it's about the comedy, and putting the comedy in a situation. Some of the situations in our shows have been absurd, like when we had two men stuck in a bathroom for 25 years, and two vaudevillians who couldn't leave the stage. But we've never been writers who had points to get across about the absurdity of existence."
"Our purpose," says Foley, "is to entertain people. But one way to entertain people is to suggest that there is a hinterland to these idiots parading in front of them."
'Ducktastic!' is previewing at the Albery, WC2, from Tuesday