Laurel and Hardy
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
While many theatres are dark during the summer, the New Vic is continuing with its policy of presenting a range of productions designed to appeal to all ages and tastes. It's a strategy which might backfire in a summer better than this one. But the theatre is benefiting because it's looking far more attractive than barbecues and other outdoor pastimes.
Only six days after the excellent Les Liaisons Dangereuses delighted audiences at the north Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round, the New Vic is staging Tom McGrath's play about one of the world's finest comedy duos.
Laurel and Hardy looks at the people beneath the bowler hats. The pair come back from the dead to trace their upbringing and rise to fame in the first half while, after the interval, McGrath reveals the deeper side to both characters as well as showcasing the almost limitless talents of the two artistes.
It goes without saying that the show succeeds or fails on the two actors chosen to play Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy.
Director Paul Warwick had few problems selecting Ollie. Mike Goodenough played the rotund one in the BBC4 drama Stan and believes he's the only actor to play Hardy on both stage and screen.
Goodenough displays all the mannerisms you expect to see: the cheeky smile; the waving of the tie; the disapproving reprimand of his colleague; and the inclination to hog the limelight. He's totally apt for the role.
In the second half Goodenough shows us a disparate side as McGrath delves deeper into the characters. Here we have Hardy the gambler, the worrier who signs his contract with a Hollywood studio too readily, the unadventurous one who's reluctant to take a step into the unknown.
Playing opposite him is Stephen Harper, a comedy actor who from his first entrance looks a dead ringer for Stan Laurel. The dopey expression, the scratching of the head, the feigned whimpering when anything goes wrong and the individualistic walk could hardly be bettered.
Later Harper brings out the serious side as he shows us how Laurel is the brains behind the partnership and a workaholic but also suffers from a drink problem and gets married several times.
When Goodenough and Harper work together they add an extra dimension to their performance. They're at their finest when they introduce the slapstick side of their act, notably in a barber's shop and in a decorating sketch which bring howls of delight from the audience.
The pair are also adept at interacting with the audience as well as playing other characters who are introduced to the story. Harper dons a wig to play Ollie's mother while Goodenough becomes Stan's dad and girlfriend. And in the second half each plays manipulative studio boss Hal Roach.
The only thing Goodenough and Harper appear to struggle with is singing. Although the songs are kept to a minimum, the pair seem uneasy with the vocals and the show momentarily loses its pace and appeal on a couple of occasions. However, the duo are talented enough to be able to bring the evening immediately back to life.
There's a bonus in Laurel and Hardy in the shape of musical director Julian Littman who sings, plays piano, guitar and all manner of percussion instruments and sound effects.
Paul Warwick directs for the first time at the New Vic yet is able to bring a similar quality and vitality to the stage that are trademarks of the theatre's in-house productions.
A word too for movement director John Wright who ensures Goodenough and Harper pull off some tricky moves involving trap doors, ladders and various props.
This show is a real tribute to the most successful and prolific comedy team in screen history. Laurel and Hardy is on for only a short time at the New Vic. You'll be in a fine mess if you miss it!
"Laurel and Hardy" runs until August 11th
Reviewer: Steve Orme