Brighton Fringe 2018
“Stephen and Phil dream of being ‘Laurel and Hardy’, but the closest they can get is their tribute act to the screen stars. Meg, Stephen’s girlfriend, tries to keep the two friends in line during a rehearsal, but their personal problems threaten to undo everything they’ve worked for.”
Walking into the Broadway Lounge, I was greeted by two delightfully welcoming women and the music of ABBA. I don’t generally comment on a venue because as critics we are there to review the show only, but in this case, the venue was, much like the careers of Laurel and Hardy themselves, a perfect partnership and a wonderful augmentation to the experience.
Walking up the stairs to the converted cabaret space, one does feel a bit like walking back in time and the brick façade of the onstage fireplace serves as a perfect backdrop to transport us from the streets of Brighton to the unassuming flat above the bar of later-in-life artistic hopefuls Stephen and Phil, would-be Laurel and Hardy tribute artists and producer, director, girlfriend and moral and financial support Meg, the transformation completed with little more than a table, a dress form and a few odds and ends pulled from a crate.
From the program description I thought this was another tribute show to the late greats framed within the narrative of these three hopefuls, a show within a show to highlight the most familiar and popular moments from the cinematic life of Laurel and Hardy, a near impossible task for even the most gifted impersonator, which Stephen and Phil (the characters not the actors) are not, and it is this device which clues us in to the fact that this is no ordinary tribute show, this is an extraordinary bit of theatre with a few moments of nostalgia gifted to us from the annals of time as a catalyst for a much more powerful and complex story.
Another Fine Mess reveals itself as far more than the sum of its parts, as we see the behind the scenes struggle of these three artists trying desperately to make a mark before their time is ended, the challenges of working and sacrificing together and the question of what we give up in the pursuit of art and something greater than ourselves. Thrust into the rehearsal process, we are immediately aware that perhaps things aren’t going well and in fact this might well be a last chance for our three protagonists. Meg is the frustrated, put-upon producer, everyman actor, and the glue holding together our rag tag company. Stephen, the brainchild and director behind the comedy duo also embodies with reverent enthusiasm the role of thin man Stan Laurel, and Phil admirably but reluctantly takes on the role of Oliver Hardy, bemoaning the realities of being fat, a necessity he reports, to any good impersonation of Hardy. In fact some of the most tender and endearing moments of the show are when Phil talks about his affection for playing Oliver Hardy, and the influence he has had upon him, but the meat of this play within a play is the relationship of these three friends which is complicated by the revelation that Phil is not well, calling into question the foundation of their partnerships and revealing biases which might well end everything before it begins.
The play feels a bit dated and a few of the more emotional moments weren’t fully realized, with a bit of a lost opportunity to contrast the two dimensional aspects of the Laurel and Hardy comedy with the complicated emotional range experienced in the fine messy worlds of friendships, partnerships, and betrayal, however it is a minor point as the pacing and transitions in and out of the film moments were accomplished with great skill, the tender moments with great care, and much like the heart and soul of Stan and Ollie, the most beautiful, poignant and resonant moments are accomplished not in the laughs, but in the quiet moments. The final payoff, when we at last make it to the audition, is worth the price of admission, accomplished simply, with only a change in the lights, and we at last see the complete transformation, not only of our two stars stepping into the shoes of our icons, but also of their friendship, solidified for what we hope will be years to come.
Post-script Theatre’s Another Fine Mess is an imperfect production which will none-the-less have you cheering and leave you smiling. What greater legacy could Laurel and Hardy ask for?