It was 46 years ago this spring – in March 1976 – that Tom McGrath’s debut play Laurel and Hardy first appeared on stage at the Traverse Theatre, in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket. Kenny Ireland, later artistic director of the Lyceum Theatre, played Oliver Hardy, and fellow Scottish actor John Shedden played Stan Laurel; and the show was such an immediate success that it transferred to what is now the Bedlam Theatre in Forrest Road for that year’s Edinburgh Fringe, playing to packed houses alongside plays by Donald Campbell and Billy Connolly, as part of incoming Traverse director Chris Parr’s policy of focussing on a new generation of Scottish writers.
Since then, McGrath’s play has won an extraordinary place in the international theatre repertoire, with dozens of revivals in theatres from Berkshire to Milwaukee. It’s also much loved by the global army of Stan and Ollie fans; and its continuing success, so many decades on, must have something to do with the show’s extraordinary quality of timelessness, which actors Steven McNicoll and Barnaby Power – with director Tony Cownie – hope to be able to conjure up more vividly than ever, when they return to the play at the Lyceum Theatre next week, 17 years after their hugely successful 2005 production on the same stage.
“I remember when I was a kid in the 1970s, watching the Stan and Ollie films on television, I absolutely loved them,” says McNicoll, who plays Ollie, “and I think what fascinated me most was the world they created, the way they drew you into this timeless place where all these daft things could happen. One of the many things this play does is to recreate some of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous routines in meticulous detail, and that’s a fascinating task; we spent hours watching box-sets of their films back in 2005, and beginning to understand how every single second counts in creating that comic effect.
Tom McGrath photographed at his home in Kingskettle, Fife, in April 2005 PIC: Phil Wilkinson / The Scotsman
“There’s just no room for error or for any lapse of concentration; and yet at the same time, reimagining those routines for the stage, you do have to tackle them slightly differently to make them work for a live audience, with no cut-aways or changes of shot. Technically, it’s very demanding; but it’s also so satisfying, when you begin to get it right, and to feel close to what Stan and Ollie achieved, in their comedy.”
Set in a kind of post-death theatrical limbo, where Stan and Ollie are able to look back on their lives, the play both evokes in extraordinary detail the timeless world of comedy that Laurel and Hardy created at the peak of their powers in the early 1930s – the two little men forever frustrated by the practicalities of life, helpless in the face of everything from angry women to recalcitrant buckets – and faces up squarely to the perennial theme of mortality itself, and of what happens to great comedians when they begin to grow old.
“This is a play that really does so much, in just two hours,” says Barnaby Power. “It recreates Stan and Ollie’s famous routines, it packs in huge amounts of information about their lives – their early careers, their marriages, their struggles with the film industry – and yet it also has this very powerful and poetic strand of reflection, which is not exactly nostalgic, but deeply moving.
“If there is any difference in coming back to it 17 years on, I think for me it’s about empathising even more with the way the industry eventually wore them down, as artists, and the way they constantly had to repackage themselves to fit changing commercial models. They became famous for their brilliant two-reel short films, for example; but by the 1940s, two-reelers barely existed any more.”
“Yes, it’s interesting that in 2005, we were around the mid-30s age Stan and Ollie were they first began to work together,” adds Steve McNicoll, “whereas now, we’re around the age they were when they fell out with their producer Hal Roach, and their film career began to decline. I think I’ve always been fascinated by that question of what happens to old clowns, when they can no longer quite deliver that unchanging comic world their audiences expect of them; and this play deals with that in a very moving way. And it’s even more poignant for comedians who work in partnership, like Stan and Ollie or Morecambe and Wise; because when one goes, the whole world they’ve created goes, and the one left behind can seem like a ghost.”
All of which points to the play’s final and perhaps deepest theme, which has to do with friendship, and even love; the bond between the two characters Laurel and Hardy created, the real-life friendship between the two men, and the love and affection they inspired in their millions of fans, both in the 1930s, and today. Tom McGrath himself died in 2009; but in 2005, when this team first tackled the play, he was around, and delighted by the success of the production.
“When I first met Tom to talk about the play,” says director Tony Cownie, “what struck me most was his deep sense of affection for these downtrodden, hopeless, but nevertheless contented pals, who made their way through the Depression and into all but the most hardened of hearts.
“He wanted to tell the real story of Laurel and Hardy; but mostly, he wanted to see them live again. This was, he said, the main driving force. And now, I suppose in many ways we have all come through a great depression, during the Covid pandemic; so what better medicine could there possibly be, than a new production of the best play about the best comedy duo in history?”