At first, Toby Jones isn’t happy: England are being walloped at cricket and it seems increasingly unlikely Prince Charles is ever going to appear as a guest in . However, such gloominess is alien to the Wyndham’s Wonderland of this Morecambe and Wise tribute and Jones soon cheers up when Tom Bowtell reminds him of just how successful the play continues to be…
The second coming of The Play What I Wrote is proving, if such a thing is possible, to be even more popular than the first. Critics continue to foam with praise for it, while audiences are regularly guffawing themselves to an early grave. The play, written by and starring Hamish McColl and Sean Foley – (who make up the surreal comedy clowning double act, The Right Size) – tells the story of a double act who find themselves in the untenable position of having to perform a tribute show for Morecambe and Wise. Toby Jones plays their best friend Arthur, whose efforts to play the harmonica live on stage are thwarted at every juncture. Jones also plays every other role the play throws up, including David Pugh, the legendary producer of the show, and a menagerie of megastars.
According to Jones, The Play What I Wrote is very much a product of its own making: “After the first day of trying things out, Hamish and I both felt that it couldn’t be done, that a Morecambe and Wise take off was just too dangerous. And I think the show came out of that attitude of defeatism. Sean was much clearer that ‘it might be a laugh’ to try and do it, and to a remarkable extent, the show is the story of its own construction. That’s the plot of the play because that’s what happened! When the subject of guest stars came up, we all even said ‘we’ll never get a guest star’ which is more or less what’s said in the play.” It is fitting for a show about Morecambe and Wise that the truth behind the show is every bit as strange as the fiction. Jones admits that the ingenious plot structure emerged more by luck than judgement. “Certain people have said, ‘oh it’s so great, it’s so post modern and self-referential’, but actually if you look at an episode of Morecambe and Wise, or any variety show, it will usually be about itself.”
"I'd like to do Elvis – if he's available"
So who is Toby Jones? Anyone who has seen the show may know him better as Pamela Anderson, Twiggy, Ralph Fiennes, Roger Moore, Ewan McGregor, Joanna Lumley, Bob Geldof, Gandhi and Archbishop Desmond TuTu. OK, so he hasn’t played the last two (yet), but Jones’s impersonations of the special guest stars (as a prelude to their actual appearance in the second half) are renowned as some of the highlights of the play. Jones admits that his unexpected rebirth as an impressionist has been hugely entertaining: “It’s a very specific challenge! I shall remember it for the rest of my life – never having had any desire to be an impressionist previously. Although to call it impressionism is glorifying it slightly, abstract impersonation is probably the best term for it…” And who has been his favourite impersonatee? “I loved doing Ralph [Fiennes], he gets the balance just right. I think the great gag about Morecambe and Wise is if the guest looks bemused, as if they’ve been given this rather strange gig by their agents and they can’t quite work out how they’ve ended up on stage with these peculiar people. The great temptation for the guests is to join in with our humour, and when that happens the balance tends to shift a bit. The easiest people to impersonate are those that are best known for one character only. I loved doing Charles Dance, David Suchet and Jerry Hall too.” In Broadway he is hoping to persuade George W. Bush to take part – “although it would be very hard to embarrass him” – and he is also keen do Elvis “if he’s available".
Recent stars have included the ever-suave Roger Moore and Bob Geldof. “Geldof was so much fun,” says Jones, “He is just so loved by every body that when he came on stage, the roof came off. People were thrilled that after us three jokers, someone worthwhile had come on!” Geldof’s name provided plenty of scope for creative malapropism by the cast “we called him Mr Dandruff, Gandalf, and even Bob Monkhouse” confirms Jones, suppressing a giggle. One of Morecambe and Wise’s key ambitions was to induce corpsing in their guests, and the tradition is alive and well in The Play What I Wrote, but have Jones McColl or Foley themselves suffered any bouts of on-stage laughing during the 250-odd shows they have so far completed? “There have been a couple of occasions – once, when we were on tour in Belfast, there was a time when all three of us went. I can’t remember laughter like it on stage, it just couldn’t be hidden. The worst thing about laughter like that is that you get a mad kind of paranoia and start to imagine that you can hear the other person laughing off stage. Once you start giggling, the insanity of the show and the madness of what you are doing just makes it impossible to stop. You keep thinking “I can’t believe that I’m here, doing this. In Belfast, it was triggered by someone with a particularly bizarre laugh. It was a sort of groaning, blowing laugh, and he kept laughing in counter time with the audience. They would stop laughing, and he would start.”
"I can't remember laughter like it on stage – it couldn't be hidden"
Modestly skirting his own role in its success (he won an Olivier award for his performance), Jones thinks that the Right Size’s achievement in pulling off The Play What I Wrote is “incredible”. He has been friends with McColl and Foley for many years and appeared with them in Cabin Fever at the Riverside Studios. His ties with the duo run deep and as his father, also an actor, played a key role in the Right Size’s previous show Bewilderness which told the tale of two men who fall down the back of a settee. Jones’ own career has been impressively varied; he has been acting since school and performed in plays as diverse as A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Almeida and Complicité’s Out Of A House Walked A Naked Man. He can currently be heard in cinemas across the land providing the voice of Dobby The Elf in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.
Bizarrely, one of Jones' finest career moves was to be edited out of Notting Hill: “I auditioned for the role of the bookseller’s assistant, the part which James Draper got, and they rang me back to say that while they had liked my audition, I wasn’t right for that part and they offered me a part called The Fan, which involved me having one scene with Hugh and Julia. What happened when I went up to film it was just surreal. At one point I left the set (in my fan’s costume) to have a cuppa with a friend who lived nearby. When I came back, they wouldn’t let me back on to set because they thought that I actually was a fan! Then later, when I was introduced to Julia Roberts, she was obviously under the impression that I was a real fan too, and looked rather confused.” Although Jones did finally gain access to the set, the story ended tragically when his scene didn’t make the final cut. The saga was given a fitting epilogue some months later: “when Hugh Grant came to see The Play What I wrote, he came backstage to tell us all how much he enjoyed the show and he looked at me musingly and said ‘haven’t we met before somewhere?’” Jones is no prima donna and took the knock well – “as an actor, you’ve got be phlegmatic about these things.” He even used it to his advantage by writing a whole show about the events called The Missing Reel. “As a writer, things like that are valuable as they provide you with fuel for ideas.”
Jones’ next source of fuel will doubtless come when The Play What I Wrote transfers to Broadway next year. He admits that the peculiar Britishness of the show makes the venture a risky one, particularly as the Americans never really ‘got’ Morecambe and Wise in the first place. “I think it would be foolish of anyone to say that it wasn’t a massive gamble to take it to Broadway, it’s a hugely English show on one level – there’s a whole nostalgic level to it which won’t be there in America. But I think we’ve got a good chance, the show is very strong and we’ve got someone of the pedigree of Mike Nichols producing us – he really knows his onions.” Greengrocers aside, Jones thinks that what ever happens in the United States it will be “a fascinating experiment.”
"I'm desperate to play James Bond!"
Jones isn’t really looking far beyond the Broadway extravaganza and plays down reports in the press that he is desperate to play Hamlet: “It’s dangerous to say anything like that – I didn’t initiate the conversation and they said do you want to play Hamlet and I said yes, I’m an actor – of course I want to play Hamlet! I think what I meant was that I want to have as varied a career as possible, to write my own stuff and to work with great writing – who knows? I might do some Chekhov next.” Despite all of the above we can exclusively announce that, (after only minimal prompting), Toby Jones, with feverishly myopic passion, is pursuing the role of James Bond when Pierce Brosnan finally steps down. “Of course I’d love to,” he gushes, “I’m desperate to play James Bond.”
However, until that day comes (and there can be little doubt that it will), Toby Jones is more than satisfied to continue cracking up on stage and entertaining thousands in the play what he didn’t write, but which just wouldn’t be the same without him.