It's a Kind of Magic
Kenneth Branagh is up to his old tricks with the duo from The Play What I Wrote

The Times, 12 September 2005                   Photo 1       Photo 2

By Dominic Maxwell

A Friday night in Newcastle, and the duck has landed for the very first time. Standing on stage in front of a pair of bird legs the size of Stonehenge are two men in glittery suits. They do magic tricks, crack gags, sing, dance, strip, fly, make fun of the set and generally give the rules of theatre a hearty rub. Sitting in the the stalls, their director, Kenneth Branagh - for it is he - looks on intently, scribbling down notes. This, after all, is the first performance of Ducktastic, the show that does for Las Vegas magic what this trio's previous show "The Play What I Wrote" did for Morecambe & Wise.

The budget is more than twice that of the earlier show. The set is too complicated to take on tour. And now that the writer-performers Sean Foley and Hamish McColl - together known as the Right Size - have gone beyond mere cult appeal they have to contend with the heightened hopes of those bowled over by "Ducktastic's" blissful predecessor.

In short, the stakes are high for this unashamedly daffy piece of comic theatre. The next day, though, its three progenitors insist that they cannot afford to worry about whether the show is seen as a sequel. "The only thing available to you if you look out that way is panic and paranoia," says McColl, the dark-haired, more garrulous half of the Right Size. "We do not care about what people say about us because we just can't control it."

"And we're also no good at it," agrees Branagh. "We're no good at second-guessing. Am I worried about the pressure of expectation? No! Not in a million years! Am I concerned about the show? Yes! It's the same thing I felt when we were trying out "The Play What I Wrote" in Liverpool four years ago. And it's the same thing I felt when I started directing in this town 20 years ago with a one-act play at the Gulbenkian. You just have to focus on how can you make it better, how can you do the best job you can?" The atmosphere between the three is warm but businesslike. Branagh, so often an Aunt Sally for the British press, is careful to confine himself to cheerleading his team. "We're all grafters, we're all creative puritans," he says, explaining why they will keep changing the show up to - and beyond - its opening night in London. Like "The Play What I Wrote", "Ducktastic" is a babbling blend of old-fashioned variety, experimental storytelling and unabashed spectacle. Foley and McColl are the writers, but Branagh pitches in on later drafts. They will, he says, take jokes from any source if they strengthen the end result: his wife Lindsay, having had to endure him trying out gags on her every night, now has lines of her own in the show. For Branagh - who has left his latest Shakespeare film, "As You Like It", in the can while he returns to this fold - Foley and McColl's uncynical style and collaborative approach give him a rare chance to go all-out for funny.

"I had one of the best creative times of my life working on "The Play What I Wrote"," he says, "and they kept saying there was another show. And then one dark afternoon last December we met in London and they gave me not the most extensive outline." McColl (in a brusque northern comic's voice): "So, Ken! Magicians and a huge duck! One of them has been kidnapped, the show must go on." "And I enter as an arbitrator as much as a director, really. In a long-term double act like this sometimes I'll simply referee. Or sometimes be a fight captain . . ." Foley (in the same voice): "Blue corner, blue corner!" "It's like being the editorial voice. The much, much challenged editorial voice."

A slice of the 800,000 budget went on recces to Las Vegas - and Blackpool - so that they could take a look at the state of the art. The result is a very British take on highfalutin conjuring, fed through the mangle of a double-act demeanour that is Hope and Crosby more than Siegfried and Roy (the show's ostensible targets). This is not an attempt to parody magic so much as to co-opt its delights - and dubiousnesses - into a narrative.

"Magic has a certain chip on the varnish," says McColl. "There's a sense of yesteryear about it, but it wants to have this enormous grandeur. It's throwing a lot of feathers at it, a lot of sequins, a lot of lights and beats in the music, but finally it's still something coming out of a box." "It's bizarre and intoxicating and repellent all at the same time," says Branagh.

"The thing that got us going," says Foley - the more instinctive debunker of the double act - "was seeing these incredible illusions, then thinking: somebody disappears from a box, where do they go? Which a magician, who's just interested in their trick, sees only as an illusion. That seemed a wonderful opening, to use those tricks and build them into a story."

So over the past few months Foley and McColl have gone on a crash course to become master illusionists. "The boys have been fantastic in taking on how to present magic," says Branagh, "how to sell it, how to do misdirection and all that kind of kaboodle when you genuinely want to bring if off as opposed to make some comic value out of it not going well. It requires a very specialist degree of expertise."

So here's the trick: to celebrate and emulate while appropriating and subverting. And to make this into a mainstream hit without any of the nightly mystery guests that boosted the appeal of "The Play What I Wrote" - from Ralph Fiennes to Roger Moore, from Branagh himself to Sting and (on Broadway) Liam Neeson and Nathan Lane. "This time we've replaced them with ducks," says Foley. "Although we don't have to write lines for the ducks."

Working with Branagh, they say, has brought them a new degree of slickness. "When we first heard that Ken might be interested in working with us, we were convinced he was a man who stood around in doublet and hose with a skull in his hand," says McColl. "But he's first and foremost a showman!" "You present a seeming chaos," says Foley, "a big old rumbustious comedy, but it should actually be played like a piece of Bach. Every single little tiny crotchet and quaver is there."

The good fortunes of "The Play What I Wrote" didn't translate into big offers for Foley and McColl. "Have we had offers to go to Hollywood, or even The Bill?" says McColl. "No. Being in a double act, people think you're hermetically sealed." "Once we were finished in the West End we were six months in America," says Foley. "The parade had moved on."

They recently made a pilot variety show for the BBC. "Foley and McColl: This Way Up" included cameos from Roger Moore and Will Young. They've just heard that the BBC has opted not to make the series. For the moment at least, the show is the star.

"In terms of commercial appeal, who the hell are Sean Foley and Hamish McColl?" says Foley. "But if someone will pay for you to do what you want, you go for it," says McColl. "He and I come from the theatre of gaffer tape and fishwire. And the great thing about "The Play What I Wrote" was that it persuaded [the producer] David Pugh to let us have more toys with this one. It's a big punt of faith from him."

Branagh leaves, pad in hand - there are notes to give to the crew. With an hour to go before the matinee, Foley and McColl are starting to look anxious. It's no cakewalk, this turning low art into high art - if that's what they are doing here. "Actually," says McColl, "I'm very proud that this is low art. Tommy Cooper was fantastic, he was incredible, but what he did was not high art. It's fantastically skilled low art. And that 's something we continually want to champion rather than rename."

"Ducktastic" is at the Theatre Royal Newcastle (0870 9055060) until Saturday, then it previews at the Albery Theatre in London (0870 9500920) from Oct 11, and opens on Oct 17

Now you see it, now you don't: the magic of West End theatre:
"Theatre of Blood" - Improbable's horror comedy based on the Vincent Price film of the same name uses stage illusions to dispatch six theatre critics - and two poodles - in gleefully grisly fashion.
"The Witches" - A boy shrinks and turns into a mouse - a trick its inventor, Paul Kieve, labels "Formula 86" - in this touring Roald Dahl adaptation. Adapter David Woods, king of British children's theatre, is also a member of the Magic Circle.
"Mary Poppins" - The illusions designer Jim Steinmeyer made Mary Poppins's carpet bag seem even more miraculous than on celluloid, producing a hat stand, a potted palm and a solid bed out of thin air.
"The Invisible Man" - This H. G. Wells adaptation ran for seven months in the West End - including a stunning scene in which our hero finally removes his shroud but still appears to be smoking.
"Edmond" - Kenneth Branagh starred in this 2003 National Theatre run of David Mamet's drama, for which Paul Kieve supplied the knowhow for a street con, the Three Card Monte, perpetrated on the play's self-destructive anti-hero.

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