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The Comeback at Noel Coward Theatre review: surreal, silly and very, very funny

This play about comedy double acts – or is it a comedy routine about theatre? – by Radio 4 gag-merchants The Pin, aka Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen, is the perfect pre-Christmas present. Unwrapping its layers of silliness, surrealism and the fairly boggling way it plays with perspective is half the pleasure. There is real warmth and sweetness to it, and a deliriously inventive chase sequence straight out of Scooby Doo.

Ashenden and Owen play “Ben” and “Alex”, a struggling young double-act failing to break through, and also Jimmy and Syd, a superannuated end-of-the-pier pair whose comeback tour they are supporting. That the two partnerships can only be told apart by the dodgy northern accents and sparkly hats of the old codgers is one of many daft running gags that enlist the audience’s complicity. It’s ‘meta’, as they say.

Alex is the child-like optimist, only briefly chagrined each time he messes up a punchline, cue, or entrance. Ben is the uptight, tormented one who boasts of being in the forces (ParcelForce) and the Feds (FedEx) but is acutely aware of failure.

Their attempts to conjure up new material are hopeless and very, very funny. Then, when Alex accidentally knocks out Syd, the support act seize their chance to impress the Hollywood director who just happens to be in the audience of the tiny provincial theatre they’re in.

One of the great delights of the show is the way jokes are deconstructed, rebuilt, discarded and resurrected, getting bigger laughs each time. The absurdity that is there from the start ramps up as the duo switch the action between onstage and backstage, swap tiny props for giant ones, and enlist a famous guest star as a more-or-less witting accomplice. Last night, it was Katherine Parkinson, gamely submitting to gentle humiliation and a tasering.

The Pin weren’t even born when the old-school double-acts were supplanted by alternative comedy in the mid-80s, but this show brims with affection for that past world, while retaining a quirky freshness all its own. Its opening was originally put back by the second lockdown, then abruptly brought forward again to this weekend by fears of London going into Tier three. If we don’t, book a ticket.

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