Written by Tom McGrath
Directed by Tony Cownie
Life’s too short not to laugh. From Charlie Chaplin to Buster Keaton, Alice Howell to Mildred Davis, the silent era stars navigated the dishevelled steps of comedy gold through the early twenties to the fifties. But above them all, one duo paved the cobbles for the history of comedians – their legacy still standing tall to this day: Laurel & Hardy. The big-hearted Southern boy and that scrappy Lancashire lad found their fame in America, and after nearly twenty years away from The Lyceum stage, Tom McGrath’s Scottish classic and love letter to the pair revisits the stage, bringing with it those very same laughs.
The entire premise is beyond the scope for some, as two old pals awake in the afterlife, the tattered sheets of a music hall, along with a dusty ol’ piano, adorn the Lyceum stage as Stan Laurel and Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy take one final bow. The iconic comedy duo look back over their lives, love and friendship in an original ‘biographic’ tale which blends traditional slapstick, melancholy storytelling and a simple, clean, yet beautiful sense of theatricality.
And over those near twenty years of being away, Steve McNicoll and Barnaby Power have stayed with McGrath’s story as the titular Laurel and Hardy. They now return, continuing the wow audiences with the adept ability to both physically and mentally transform into the pair, channelling a new depth of understanding and truth under Tony Cownie’s direction.
The mannerisms, verbally and physically, of McNicoll, are controlled despite their erratic appearance, with the signature movements noted for Hardy’s bruised pride being a joy for the audience to watch, catching the side glances and eye-rolls at his do-stars antics. Fumbling his tie, McNicoll is a clown for the twenty-first century, said with the deepest of respect. Looser and prone to a ‘flail’ of emotional outbursts, Barnaby Powers is confident in their movements – as the replications of the duo’s routines are timed with elegant composure and definitive timing – both their Soda Shop and wallpapering scenes a virtuoso display of brilliance.
This dynamic duo are far from alone, as Cownie constructs Laurel & Hardy as an ensemble piece, where the onstage value of musical director and pianist Jon Beales is never undervalued, as he tickles the ivories – an integral a part of the show as Steve and Barnaby, the trio pulled together through Cownies direction. The jaunty, slow-burning score of the production certainly aids in the more steadily paced physical comedic moments, reiterating Laurel and Hardy’s more steady approach to comedy, emphasised in Rita Henderson’s choreographed movement.
But it isn’t only the mortal flesh on stage who garner laughs and conjure poignancy, the set-pieces achieve as equal a response as the comedic acting. A tribute to the longevity and influence of comedy, unlike any artform, which stands the test of time. Gorgeously lit by Tina Mac Hugh, capturing the timelessness monochromatic tint of nostalgia; that continued ‘hit’ we return to time and again to its embrace. All framed in Neil Murray’s clever set-piece, at times triggering as clear a reaction as Steve or Barnaby, others an unfolding comedic skit in waiting, and others – a mausoleum, a tribute to the giants of the industry, an ethereal limbo.
Make no mistake, Tom McGrath’s piece may continue an ancient art of theatrical ghost stories but elevates with a tenderness. An introductory show for some to the pair, there’s an encouraging diverse audience within the Lyceum for Laurel & Hardy – veteran fans of their shorts, and younger audiences with untainted laughter at the roots of their contemporary comedic heroes. Laurel & Hardy could stir laughter in an empty room, but more, this genius re-telling is equally genius and gorgeous as the pairs’ friendship
“Genius & Gorgeous Tribute”
Laurel & Hardy plays at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until June 25th
Tickets for which may be obtained here.