First published in The Times, Thursday June 9 2022
The premise of Tom McGrath’s 1976 play is literally out of this world. Two old pals meet in the afterlife and try to make sense of their career as cinema’s best-loved comic double act. “We’ve been dead for years,” says Stan Laurel, played in Tony Cownie’s revival by Barnaby Power. “The people want to know who we really were.”
Granted, the prospect of sharing the sweet hereafter with Stan and Ollie would be heaven to some, hell to others; the mood music in the auditorium of the Lyceum suggests a strong appreciation of the pair’s unique brand of slow-burning slapstick. There is unconstrained laughter and affectionate shaking of heads at the impeccably staged routines, and a wistful singalong to The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is a touching reminder of Laurel and Hardy’s roots in live theatre, the former in music hall in England, the latter as a vaudevillian in the southern US states.
The chief pleasure of McGrath’s play is its seamless interweaving of the pair’s most inventive gags with biographical detail, and this delicate balancing act is expertly walked by Power and Steven McNicoll (playing Hardy) in Cownie’s well-judged production. The two actors first played these roles at the Lyceum in 2005, with the intervening years adding poignancy to their portrayal. For the comic sequences, choreographed by Rita Henderson and soundtracked by Jon Beales at the piano, McNicoll is every inch the prissy fat man, saddled with Power’s blubbering innocent.
Meanwhile, the script touches on the comedians’ early days in Hollywood, their work with Hal Roach and Leo McCarey (the producer and director of their ingenious shorts of the late 1920s) and Laurel’s increasing tussle with Roach for creative independence, which ultimately led them into a career dead end. Neil Murray’s simple monochrome set is suggestive of music hall stage and of limbo, an acknowledgment that these great performers became trapped in their famous roles.
In the most telling sequence the pair reflect fondly on the stability of their relationship compared with the tumult of their personal lives (they had eight marriages between them). The short scene movingly recognises the famously enduring offscreen friendship while speaking volumes about the deeper undercurrent Laurel and Hardy brought to their goofy onscreen antics.
To June 25, lyceum.org.uk