Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
The central figures of the Lyceum’s latest production are incredibly familiar. Their expressive faces and distinctive costumes are known to people who weren’t even born when they were strutting their stuff. In the opening moments of this affectionate play, Stan & Ollie wander onto a grey stage that looks like a representation of limbo, and are quick to remind us that they are now dead (something they’re not particularly happy about) and that it’s high time the public knew about the real men behind their onscreen personas.
It’s ironic then, that the late Tom McGrath’s play, first performed at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1976, goes on to tell us very little about their actual lives. There are snippets, told rather than shown, but we see very little of the genesis of these two great comedians, the influences that shaped them as they grew up.
There’s no doubting the authenticity of the performances. Barnaby Power (Stan) and Steven McNicoll (Ollie) are revisiting roles they debuted at the Lyceum back in 2005 and claim that that have relished the opportunity to revisit Stan & Ollie now they are older themselves. They have clearly studied every tic, every mannerism, every nuance of the titular duo. Accompanied by pianist/straight man, Jon Beales, they dutifully run through some of their most iconic scenes. But perhaps it’s possible to be too comfortable in reprised roles.
Laurel and Hardy’s greatest secret was that they made it all look so easy. Considerable effort came disguised as a walk in the park, but it was in there, hiding in plain sight. The comics’ physicality was always disguised by their meticulous timing.
Tonight, something feels a little off. It’s a little too polite, too mannered. There are ripples of laughter from the audience, but not the helpless guffaws you might expect – and while the recreations of past triumphs occasionally jolt into life (a silent-movie sequence animated by the flicker of strobes is a particular highlight), they just as often play out without making enough impact, as though the two actors are simply walking through the action.
Power and McNicholl occasionally have to step out of their main roles to portray other figures from the period, but there’s little to differentiate them and, once again, I am left wanting to know more – about the things we’ve never seen onscreen. Furthermore, it’s also true to say that some of the lines, which may have passed muster in the 1970s (or, indeed, the 1940s), don’t fly too well in this day and age. “How do you keep a married man at home? Break his legs.” Hmm.
Hardline Laurel & Hardy fans will doubtless have fun with this. As an impersonation of two great comedians, it is well executed – but as an occasional fan of their work, I am left wanting to know much more about them.
Laurel & Hardy may run like clockwork – but it doesn’t say enough about what made them tick.