Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – continues until 25 June 2022
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is a deeply felt element to Laurel & Hardy at the Lyceum, that enhances the hilarity on display in note-perfect re-creations of classic comedy.
Tom McGrath’s play, first seen at the Traverse in 1976, is a biographical tribute to the towering comic duo, who made the otherwise seemingly impossible transition from the silent screen to sound.
This particular cast and creative team were responsible for the 2005 Lyceum production and have reunited 17 years on. The passage of time has lent an autumnal air to some of it, but the central comic set-pieces are as good as the acting that surrounds them.
Steven McNicoll’s Hardy is more finicky and controlled, with all of Hardy’s signature movements beautifully expressed. Most notably, that sidelong glance at the audience, full of wounded, pompous pride, is an absolute joy. So different on stage from on camera, it is a far more difficult thing to get right than it appears.
Barnaby Power’s Laurel is more loping and loose-limbed, but both equally assured in the physical comedy. The re-creations of the duo’s routines are tremendous, with the extended wallpapering routine a bravura display, with exquisite poise and timing.
That timing is echoed throughout all of Tony Cownie’s assured and exemplary direction. It demonstrates what is stressed in the script; rather than following in the more frenetic footsteps of most silent comedians, Laurel and Hardy deliberately slowed things down, and this is also reflected in Rita Henderson’s excellent choreography.
The play is not just a re-creation of classic routines. The framing device, with the duo looking back on their lives from an unspecified netherworld, is delicately and elegiacally done.
There is more than a smidgeon of the Theatre of the Absurd about the situation, with the obvious debt that Waiting For Godot, for example, owes to Laurel and Hardy being repaid. The close bond between the two, despite all of their differences, is demonstrated in a story that also reflects their disappointments.
Neil Murray’s tattered monochrome set provides a backdrop for a series of episodes from the lives of each comedian, with the two performers supplying the other necessary roles. Jon Beales, whose accompanying piano provides constant delight, fills in any other necessary parts.
Some of the more end-of-the-pier material about marriage does betray the piece’s 1970s origins. It has certainly dated considerably less well than the timeless physical humour, but luckily the slapstick dominates.
Despite the wistful tone of some of this, it remains a defiant tribute to the timeless power of comedy. Younger generations who missed out on the previous ubiquity of Laurel and Hardy on film and then television really do not know what they are missing. This production should show them.
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Friday 3 – Saturday 25 June 2022.
Evenings Mon-Sat 7.30 pm, Matinees Wed, Thurs, Sat 2.30 pm
Socially Distanced Performances: Wed 15
Tickets and details: Book here.
Steve McNicoll as Oliver Hardy and Barnaby Power as Stan Laurel playing Oliver’s mother. Pic: Alan McCredie