MDirector Leo McCarey has a proposal for producer Hal Roach. He saw Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel star in the same silent short, The Lucky Dog, and now he wants to see them as a double act. The film could be called Putting Pants on Philip and the actors would play their distinctive characteristics: Hardy as a southern gentleman, Laurel as a nervous Brit. McCarey thinks they’ll be fun together.
Not only that, it will be an antidote to the madness of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the Keystone Cops. His genius idea is that they play slowly.
That’s the cue, in the late Tom McGrath’s piece, for a piece of choreographed slapstick. The kind of wallpaper sketch we’ve all seen in panto becomes a ballet of ladders, brushes and shovels. Without a word, Stan and Ollie go through a long dance of ducks, dives and crashes. Heads get smashed, ties get cut and dough gets everywhere. Nearly a century later, the public is laughing.
In this way, McGrath’s play is a paradox; it is a monument to the ephemeral. First seen in 1976, it not only celebrates the comedic genius of Stan and Ollie, reworking some of their finest sketches, but also laments the passing of their moment.
Written with the fluidity of a dream, it traces biographical details, from music hall and vaudeville to movie success, multiple wives and misguided deals. But rather than just a tribute, it’s a melancholic commentary on aging, a reflection on the impossibility of capturing a fleeting moment of inspiration, laughter and camaraderie.
Going back to the roles they last played in 2005, Stephen McNicoll and Barnaby Power make a perfect team. McNicoll, oddly like Hardy in stature and mannerisms, is all grace, pomp and frills of the tie. Power, always deferential, captures the sleeping eyelids, loose gait and endless double takes of a bushy-haired Laurel.
Oddly, the theme of aging is less poignant now that the actors are getting closer to the age of the comedians at their prime. But set against a monochromatic Neil Murray set where even the pies are grey, Tony Cownie’s direction remains a bittersweet celebration of the wacky and the sublime.