The Comeback with Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen | Theatre review by Steve Bennett
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The Comeback with Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen

Theatre review by Steve Bennett

No sooner has The Comeback hit the West End stage than it will be forced to close, as London goes into Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions from Wednesday.

It’s a rare setback for double act Ben Ashenden and Alexander Owen, also known as The Pin, who have otherwise  had a fruitful pandemic. Their online videos have gone viral and they made a sitcom for Audible, as well as adapting their 2018 Edinburgh show Backstage for this transfer. At a time when producers need small casts and short, interval-free, running times, the Fringe has become an even more vital nursery hothouse for bigger stages.

With little else to cheer Theatreland, Ashenden and Owen have been hailed as the next comedy hit, akin to One Man, Two Guvnors or the Morecambe And Wise-inspired The Play What I Wrote, to which they owe a great debt. That’s probably overstating the case for what boils down to an energetic old-school farce, but the pair bring verve and invention to the genre, and to the double act tradition, both of which they clearly respect.

Under their own names they play a young double-act, warming up for an ancient end-of-the-pier variety duo called Jimmy and Sid, trying to defibrilate their moribund careers with a comeback tour.

The show starts front of cloth, with the youngsters performing the sort of smart, expectation-subverting double-act patter that made The Pin such a hit in Edinburgh and on Radio 4, even before this show. Loosely built on impishly eager Owen butting against the more strait-laced Ashenden and played with a knowing wink, this creatively funny section shines brightest when it blurs the line between scripted stage persona and real banter. The same dichotomy, and affectionate tribute to the tradition, informs the whole show. 

We then flip backstage, where the duo spend the interval mulling their artistic dilemma: whether in polishing the bulletproof set they hope will catapult them into the big time, they’ve lost the fun and spontaneity that brought them to comedy in the first place. There’s little time for such navel-gazing, though, as news comes that a big Hollywood producer is in the audience – so in quest of that vital big break, they set out to sabotage the oldies they are supporting and steal their stage.

If you think that an unlikely plot twist, look away now, as the duo also play Jimmy and Sid. The fact that the two double-acts are dead ringers for each other despite the decades-wide age gap is the source of the least credible mistaken-identity twist since Shakespeare’s day. 

But Ashenden and Owen audaciously lean in to the preposterous artifice with just as much vigour as they apply to the manic, door-slamming, mask-wearing slapstick that ensues in the hope, largely fulfilled, that no one really cares about logic if there’s enough engaging action on stage.

There’s good chemistry between the duo and some hugely inventive bits of business, especially a contrived but wonderfully effective gag about passing props from the wings to the stage. It’s a twist on a joke that wouldn’t have been out of place in the music halls, as is their revival of the dependable mirror routine, as seen in Marx Brothers films. For all the clever, modern touches the pair have added here and there, The Comeback remains at its heart an old-fashioned affair. 

In a further nod to The Play What I wrote, a different guest star joins the fun each performance - last night it was Katherine Parkinson from the IT Crowd and Taskmaster. She wasn’t pivotal, but the under-use of a celebrity name is a gag in itself.

The Comeback has its shortcomings: Jimmy and Sid are decidedly underdeveloped, and Ashenden and Owen can’t entirely paper over the logical holes with the force of their personalities, though they come close.

But for slick, silly, larger-than-life fun, the show fits the bill. But who knows when anyone will get to see it again.

The Comeback was booking at the Noel Coward Theatre until January 3. Check the website for the latest production news.

Review date: 14 Dec 2020
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Noel Coward Theatre

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