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Another fine mess?

John Sessions and Robbie Coltrane play Laurel and Hardy. By James Rampton
A critic on this newspaper once memorably summed up the work of Laurel and Hardy thus: "They hit each other and fall over a lot." There is, of course, a bit more to them than that. Their comedy is timeless - the endless, vain struggle of the little guys to get ahead - and they have influenced everyone from advertisers to Samuel Beckett. They have even spawned the Sons of the Desert Society, who attend screenings of Laurel and Hardy films dressed in bowler hats and fezes.

Their enduring hold on the imagination sparked Tom McGrath to write a stage-play about the pair, which he has now adapted into a radio version starring John Sessions as Stan Laurel and Robbie Coltrane as Oliver Hardy. In the two-hander called, er, Laurel and Hardy, the duo look back on their partnership from beyond the grave.

They first meet on a schlocky Hollywood feature, when Hardy delivers the immortal line to Laurel: "Stick 'em up, insect, or I'll comb your hair with lead." Laurel notices Hardy's comic potential on another (straight) film, when he sees the look on his face as the horse he is sitting on gradually sinks into the sand. As the double act develops, Laurel realises: "The secret is for things to happen slowly. You can have six custard pies in a row and you'll get a laugh. But you'll get a bigger laugh with just one custard pie and a strong reaction." They made 44 films in just 10 years during their halcyon days in the 1930s. After the war, however, they fell out of fashion. "Yesterday in Hollywood I was everybody's host," Laurel laments, "today I'm nobody's guest."

Aided by John Scrimgeour's sterling work on the piano, and liberal delving into the sound-effects archive, the play captures the vivacity of the pair, as well as their infantile bickering. "Stop wiggling your tie," moans Laurel. "If you interrupt me again, I shall wiggle you," Hardy storms in reply.

That puerility is just one reason for Laurel and Hardy's enduring appeal. "They're two vulnerable guys," reckons Patrick Rayner, who directed and produced the play. "They're hapless, but there's no nasty streak in them. It's completely unmalicious humour. If anything dates, it's malicious humour."

Sessions - who like Coltrane, turns in a marvellously spirited, if not always 100 per cent accurate, performance - takes up the theme. "Stan gave off a child-like quality, and there's something deeply attractive about that. The sense of innocence is something that you couldn't get away with now. Playing those child-men - nobody would buy it these days. People are nostalgic for that prelapsarian age. They want the world to be filled with nice gangly men in hats. Nobody knows how to put his hands in his pockets like Stan did. He did it in a deeply elegant, non-faggot way. You wouldn't see Noel or Liam Gallagher doing things with such elegance. A lot of Laurel and Hardy's gags weren't great. It's like Tommy Cooper; if you write it down, it doesn't look that funny. But the sheer force of charm is so enormous, it produces something enchanting."

The plight of Laurel and Hardy in their films - as life's eternal losers - is also endearing. "The fact that they were always on their uppers, victims of the Depression, always trying to make money with ploys that went wrong - we can sympathise with that," McGrath maintains. "There was also a great sadness towards the end of their lives. They were getting battered about in their films, and they were getting battered about in real life, too. What I'm trying to show in the play is that comedy emerged out of tragedy. Comedy's a great act of defiance, a vital spark of life."

Most of all perhaps, Laurel and Hardy achieved effortlessly what all comedians strive for with generally less success: likeability. "Warmth is the quality that comes off Laurel and Hardy," McGrath contends. "I get other things from Chaplin and Keaton, but I don't get that sense of companionship. Laurel and Hardy are lovable and gentle. There are certain lines that they never cross. They never become coarse or swear - the worst word they ever use is 'tarnation'. And yet, it's not nauseating in the way that some people trying to be family entertainers are."

Sessions ends by reflecting on Laurel and Hardy's off-screen relationship. "Stan was the brains. He sorted out the money and the filming. Ollie just did as he was told - which, I must stress, is no reflection on my relationship with Robbie. I wouldn't like to tell Robbie how to do anything."

'Laurel and Hardy', Thur 2pm R4