Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy (Greenside at Nicolson Square, Edinburgh Fringe)

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have been dead for more than 50 years, but time has not diminished either their reputation or their talents, which was why the auditorium was almost packed out for Searchlight Theatre's loving tribute to the greatest comedy double act there ever was.

Laurel and Hardy were in their sixties when they embarked upon a grand tour of the UK in the early 1950s. They'd recently finished filming their last ever movie (the disastrous but overlooked Atoll K aka Utopia), which had not been a pleasurable experience at all, so they were not prepared for the waves of adulation and adoration that greeted them everywhere they went on this tour of the nation's music halls and theatres. Indeed, when they sailed across to Ireland they were greeted by hordes of fans at the water's edge, and the church bells chimed their trademark Cuckoo Song, provoking tears of joy from the ageing boys.

Searchlight's Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy is not a recreation of the duo's routines, although they do feature, and actors David Leeson and Colin Alexander do not presume to mimic or impersonate their subjects, but simply give an impression of them. The performers have only passing resemblances to the comedians (Leeson's too tall and Alexander too slim, for instance), so they wisely choose to engender Laurel and Hardy's presence rather than become them. For lo, there is no comparison.

The show rattles swiftly through the two men's origins, how they came together and briefly looks at some of their greatest works (The Music Box and Sons of the Desert get deservedly special attention). But writer Leeson prefers to dwell for longest on the comedians' twilight years, the relationship they had with one another, and their ultimate demises. The two actors appear as stagehands at the Manchester theatre where Laurel and Hardy performed, reminiscing about looking after the boys and remembering just what generous good company they were.

Laurel and Hardy in 1953
This emphasis on Laurel and Hardy's twilight years makes for a sometimes sobering, saddening experience, but credit must go to Leeson for shedding light on a period of the boys' career rarely focused on. When Stan's health begins to suffer, and then Ollie has a series of debilitating strokes, the laughs turn to tears, and when the final end comes, the audience feels their loss all over again. It's a shame the show ends on this downer, and isn't lifted by a brief reprise from happier times, as it's somewhat depressing to have to shuffle out of the theatre trying to swallow the lump in your throat.

Leeson and Alexander work well together, the former demonstrating his obvious love and knowledge of the duo, while Alexander shows off a rafter-shaking singing voice which would pull in punters even without the Laurel and Hardy draw.

Laurel and Hardy were the ultimate clowns. They were innocents in a world of complications, but they breezed through it the best they could, always at one another's side, heads high and bowlers tilted. The joy they gave, and continue to give, to millions of people across the world will never fade, because genius is timeless. It's indelible. This show is a loving tribute to Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy which pulls no punches, but serves to remind what made them special, and what made us smile.

The stats
Writer and director: David Leeson
Performer: David Leeson and Colin Alexander
Performed at Greenside at Nicolson Square (Emerald Theatre), Edinburgh, August 5th to 20th, 2016. Performance reviewed: August 15th, 2016

Searchlight Theatre Company (retrieved Aug 16 2016)
Laurel and Hardy website (retrieved Aug 16 2016)

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