Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Laurel and Hardy

Tom McGrath
York Theatre Royal
(2011)

Laurel and Hardy production photo

York Theatre Royal's summer season experimenting with an unusual main house set-up and ensemble casts has contained more hits than near-misses, in a packed season which has seen the debut of a new Mike Kenny adaptation, a large-scale community collaboration, and a welcome and powerful staging of at least one classic. It is a shame, then, that the in-the-round setting bows out (for now?) with a pair of shows which are not best suited to the reconfigured space, and whose texts have not been fully exploited by their staging.

Laurel and Hardy is a 1976 piece by Tom McGrath which has been revived to some acclaim in recent years. Placing Stan and Ollie in some sort of holding pattern of an afterlife, the play requires the characters to re-enact classic scenes from their film work, while they narrate their progress, both public and private, from childhood vaudeville into the movies.

Liam Doona's stage design scatters familiar props, painted a heavenly white, around the space, and his costumes are spot-on tweed recreations of Stan and Ollie's most recognisable personae. Several of the stage-decorating props are put to use by the pair as they recreate famous scenes from The Blockheads, Busy Bodies, and the like.

Here, though, the play encounters one of its largest problems: for all their efforts to recreate the duo, Martin Barrass and André Vincent are simply not Laurel and Hardy. While the pair appropriate trademark gestures with some success - Vincent in particular recreating the prissy tie-twiddling of Oliver "Babe" Hardy - the routines cannot help but fall short of the classic pairing's particular, peculiar physicalities and timing. Here the setting again works against them, with Hardy's trademark looks "to camera", for instance, made problematic by the in-the-round theatre. But the impersonations in any case are somewhat too generalised, and the timings, in the face of the portmanteau nature of the (already fairly long) show, become rushed, where on celluloid they have room to lope and stretch before accelerating with vicious precision.

The text itself is difficult too, falling somewhere between a greatest hits montage - which is problematic for the reasons outlined above - and a narrative re-imagination which is by turns moving, informative, and confusing. Too often, scenes peter out rather than reaching a climax, with a particularly perplexing moment of re-enactment showing Stan abandoning the stage in sudden terror, only to reappear and the pair to move onto another sequence with no explanation or payoff for the fear previously gripping them.

Like the theatre's previous Forty Years On, this feels like the wrong play at the wrong time. It's massively ambitious to embark upon a lengthy, detailed two-hander (sorry, three-hander: the voiceless "Ethel the Chimp" is a confusingly near-constant presence while contributing to only one or two moments) at the end of such a long season. In recent months, Barrass for one has been over-worked, and there can't have been enough time in rehearsal to observe each sequence with sufficient detail for the re-enactment it deserves.

As a result, the slapstick becomes somewhat pantoesque, and while audiences will doubtless be able to take some joy in this, those who aren't familiar with the original films may find other moments puzzling. It must be said that Christopher Madin's music is as always apt and fun - even more fun, in fact, than usual, working the original films' motifs together while adding his own touch. And having him onstage as the pianist and multi-instrumentalist accompanying the action is delightful and adds warmth to the proceedings, in what is an otherwise slightly disappointing end to a good summer for the Theatre Royal.

Reviewer: Mark Smith