At the beginning of Tom McGrath’s play about their lives, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are dead. It’s not a spoiler to tell you this, though, for two reasons: firstly, they announce it themselves about five minutes into the show and, secondly, you can tell from the look of Tony Cownie’s production. The ashy faces of Stan and Ollie, and the blenched paleness of Neil Murray’s sets, which lean in at surreal angles, tell us that these characters are looking back on their lives from the vantage point of the end. That gives the whole show a slightly bizarre edge right from the start. In fact, watching the pair walk on in their battered suits and hats, accompanied by a silent-movie-pianist, I was immediately reminded of Waiting for Godot, and there’s a whiff of Vladimir and Estragon’s absurdism in everything we see Stan and Ollie do.
But of course, there is! There’s something intrinsically absurd about Laurel and Hardy’s crazy on-screen antics, and if they might not have been comfortable at being linked with the nihilism of Beckett, then this Lyceum show reminds you that they’re cut from very similar cloth. There’s an added edge of poignancy to this show because McGrath’s play was first staged at the Lyceum in 2005, with the same cast and director as here. Barnaby Power and Steven McNicoll revisit their roles seventeen years later, and this not only brings them closer to the ages Laurel and Hardy would have been in the scenes they’re playing, but it adds an extra layer of nostalgia because both the actors and the characters are revisiting former glories from a position of greater experience.
And the actors are terrific. Power encapsulates Stan’s doltish stage persona and his hard-nosed business acumen equally effectively. McNicoll is a marvel because he disappears into Ollie’s character in a way that’s truly remarkable. He’s helped by his physique and build, but his mannerisms, gestures and vocal ticks show just how closely he has studied Hardy’s movie career and he’s completely believable as a result. The play’s secret weapon, however, is the third man. Jon Beales is the pianist, on stage for nearly as long as Stan and Ollie, though he hardly says a word. His function is to provide the sound effects, but his laconic character and distance from the plot makes him a key part of how the play unfolds, and he peppers the action with dozens of musical jokes that add immeasurably to the comic atmosphere.
However, if the performances are terrific then I wasn’t as convinced by McGrath’s script. In one sense it’s a straightforward telling of the story of their lives and their partnership, interspersed with re-enactments of scenes from their films. Those movie episodes are still funny, lovely little nuggets of comedy. Every ladder joke is still hilarious, even though you can see it coming a mile off.
There are some jarring episodes in there too, however, such as a strange scene with a moving spotlight that represents all the women in their lives. The upcoming year of 1940 acts as a recurring theme in the script, perhaps to give it some shape and a focus of the suspense, but when it comes, the payoff is a little anticlimactic, as is what comes afterwards.
Furthermore (and I whisper this heresy) while I enjoyed the comic moments, they didn’t have me in stitches, unlike lots of people around me. I suspect that’s because I don’t have as much knowledge of or affection for the corpus of their movies. If you do, then you’ll probably love this. Even without that, though, you can’t help but admire three superb performances, delivered brilliantly, in a play that makes nostalgia a central element of its impact.