However far back one can trace the origins of slapstick, the advent of Laurel and Hardy on the big screen, thwacking each other with wallpaper paste, mallets and ladders, has marked the genre indelibly on the modern comic psyche. Buoyed by a Depression-era hunger for humour, Laurel and Hardy became the most popular English-speaking double act in history.
Tom McGrath's oft-revived 1976 play Laurel and Hardy never loses sight of this affection and seeks to explain their enduring attraction by juxtaposing their on-screen exploits with their private lives.
On an abandoned film set, a sort of pre-Heaven waiting room for media types, the spirits of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy mount the production of their lives in a sort of celestial game of snakes and ladders, where the goal is to rest in peace.
It's relentless stuff, from the moment that the southern gent Hardy, "Only eight years old!" as his mother (Stan in a skirt) wails, runs away with the minstrels, and the Lancashire lad Laurel tries his 16-year-old hand at stand-up. The play deftly sketches their rise and fall, until Stan's heart falters and Ollie's liver starts packing in. And all this beneath Neil Murray's soaring monochrome hangar of a set, costume lights blinking like a message from God.
You either love Laurel and Hardy's fine messes or you hate them, but by the end of this production you would have to be niggardly not to feel an affection towards the director Tony Cownie's boys, who slap and stick with an almost missionary enthusiasm for their namesakes, outmanoeuvring the potential pitfalls of cutting and pasting entire routines from celluloid to stage.
The ensemble work is excellent, creating a sense of the friendship that transcended failed marriages and lost contracts. Steven McNicoll is a finger-waggling, tie-twiddling delight as Hardy, and Barnaby Power, all raised eyebrows, every step taken as if over some unseen obstacle, builds a palpable sense of the talented but frustrated Stan. And behind it all, an excellent Jon Beales on piano provides everything else from the clanking signature tune to a few cameos of his own.
But there are problems with this highly entertaining production, the last in a very successful second year for Mark Thomson, its artistic director. The pair's regrets are no more than hinted at, which is a little unsatisfying for those in the audience who aren't continually hooting with laughter at the routines.
But this elegiac, celebratory quality, this refusal to taint and tar is in some ways refreshing, particularly at time when the prevailing trend is to publicly flay our celebrities. Laurel and Hardy had their skeletons, but this generally excellent production maintains the illusion they strived to maintain. As Hardy says when his internal organs finally collapsed: "Don't tell them I'm dying. My job is to make people laugh."
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