Brighton Fringe 2013
Lucky Dog bring Tom McGrath’s occasionally heartbreakingbiographical drama to the Brighton Fringe stage.
A silent movie Ollie and Stan backdrop, there’s a surreal start to the proceedings as we enter, reminding me a bit of Dreamthinkspeak. We are entering the world of Laurel and Hardy in this tender and brilliant rendition of Tom McGrath’s bittersweet play.
There’s something of Godot about this piece. Two legends scared of telling the truth. Stan Laurel is played by Tony Carpenter and Oliver Hardy is played by Philip Hutchinson. These two two have studied THAT two well. They are visually consistent and convincing, though this is no consistent impersonation. They do not try to be exactly like Stan and Babe all the time. They focus instead on the essence, and they capture that essence consistently. At wonderfully shiversome moments, the whole pice shifts into perfect focus and we have them exactly before us. At other times, it matters less for we are in story, not set piece, we are in biography, not sight gag. It is important that this isn’t just an attempt to impersonate the two using the best known bits we all remember. Instead we get an engaging and sometimes elating, sometimes sad story that fully stands out as theatre in its own right – the story of two souls fearrful of their futures, and making and breaking as they get older.
The twosome are deceased and will tell us who they really were. That’s the promise – and that promise is delivered on in an outstanding way.
The tale begins…. 1892, Atlanta Georgia. The birth of Oliver Norville Hardy…. It’s a surprisingly off the wall script in places but the traditional essence of these two has been lovingly preserved in moments of tenderness, momentsof lovingly recreated comedy, moments of frustration, and moments of death and dying. (I cried).
This is a lovely piece of theatre built around a well crafted biography for two, and you probably do have to have an interest in Stan and "Babe" Ollie to getall of the details.
Vaudeville and music hall gave way to radio and movies but not before it had left its comedy mark on Stan. We are treated to the early days of the two before they’d met and became the inseparable act we still love today.
There’s a danger here that the impersonation can overshadow the story. That doesn’t happen here. This is a biography of two legendary comedians, an immersion in Vaudeville and the birth of silent, then talking movies. We see the roots of the comedy act in the roots of their two lives as well as the off limelight dynamics. There’s boldness in this attempt but sometimes it feels a bit too designed and complex. I wanted a bit more time with Ollie and Stan without so many narrative interventions. Less will be more in terms of episodes. But there’s plenty of intriguing "fill" story to lift this into the realms of engaging biography. And I realised that my wanting more of Stan and Ollie is more about me and my love of Laurel and hardy. I grew up with them, and a reviewer has to see beyond that bias. What we get here are the difficult for a fan to watch sides of the two – their all too human insecurities about contracts, for example.
Where do you go after 44 films in ten years ? This was the turning point for the boys as they broke for freedom, a freedom to be found in being stronger as a pair stand together (in the end) in the face of Hal Roach’s obsession with the box office.
I’m a huge fan of Laurel and Hardy. There – I’ve confessed. Yet seeing past that, this is a finely crafted piece of biography theatre and goes way beyond rendition and impersonation. It’s a gem of onstage interaction, never fleeing into over the top, a tinge of darkness but plenty of warmth and infectious energy and creativity in the telling of a story that has rarely been attempted in theatrical form. McGrath’s script is a pleasing ,ix of factual docudrama but with the sensitive skill to let the boys play put their life in front of us – from beginning to end.
Life without Hal Roach – was it the biggest mistake they ever made, the wish to break free of entanglement? This is a story of rise but also of plateau and struggle. It is staged with a pitch perfect level of emotion, with an acutely strong sense of allowing the story to deliver the needed comedy without that comedy ever suffocating the narrative. That’s another reason why this is outstanding work.
We find ourselves suddenly in the ’40s and then the sagging ’50s. The later years are dealt with more quickly and less reflecting the quickening pace of the century. I won’t spoil it for you, but there a several moments that could break your heart, but there are plenty of others where you will smile. Carpenter and Hutchinson have delivered two characters that many an actor would never dare to attempt to play. Carpenter’s Laurel captures the mannerisms of Stan but also the offstage qualities of determination and his lesser known side as a director. We get the dumb look of confusion but we also get the tear-inducing love at the end. We get the needed silence and stillness alongside the replaying of classic moments from the films, timed to near perfection. Hutchinson’s Babe Hardy is all the more impressive because, as a man, he isn’t as big as hardy was, especially towards the latter years, but he sings with a sweetness and resonance in Shine On… that converged on the real and immersed us all in the milieu.
The whole thing was never underplayed, the script and the two actors serve the story – the whole story and the sense of truth that arises in an hour adds believability to the piece. A perfect blend of story and comedy. It’s rare to see that balance struck so well.
Laurel and Hardy are beyond the grave, but were brought beautifully back to life by Lucky Dog Theatre. Outstanding work.