REVIEW: Moving and witty look at slapstick legends

Laurel & Hardy, The Capitol, Horsham, Saturday, February 22

It seems that some forms of comedy, as well as some much-loved comedians, never really die.

Laurel & Hardy stars Dan James (Laurel) and Lee Pace (Hardy) who offer a fun 90-minute tribute to the classic comedy double act.

The actors have clearly paid a lot of attention to detail, capturing the pair’s visual flourishes from Ollie’s excited gesticulations to Stan’s dignified dim-wittedness.

The play doesn’t just consist of an accurate recreation, though. When the duo first appear on stage – climbing out of boxes from Hal Roach Studios – they know that they’re dead and spend the production looking back at the highs and lows of their careers.

We learn about Stan’s decision to change his last name from Jefferson to Laurel, embarrassing moments from Oliver Hardy’s childhood that convinced him he was funny and the ill-fated romances both comedians had with various women.

The two actors take turns playing secondary characters like Mae Dahlberg and producer Joe Rock, evoking the figures with alternately wacky and serious impersonations.

The show seems a little loud at first with the pair yelling at each other in some exaggerated displays of emotion.

However, this larger-than-life style makes sense if you take into account the comedic sensibilities of the 1920s and ’30s and the audience soon gets used to it.

It also becomes clear early on that the play is going to tell Laurel and Hardy’s story by blending their memorable slapstick routines into real-life incidents.

It’s these moments where the production really shines, with audience members (especially children) laughing at the duo’s inability to use a ladder or put up some wallpaper without causing a complete mess. Stan’s miscalculation with a hard-boiled egg (at Ollie’s expense, of course) gets a huge laugh.

Sadly, the party has to come to an end and the production takes on a more serious atmosphere as the duo move towards 1940, the year they split with Hal Roach film studio.

It’s the beginning of the end with America’s involvement in the war, the pair’s increasingly obvious ageing and their French-Italian flop Atoll K. It’s a poignant moment when Ollie climbs back into his box, realising that his huge body is shutting down for good. “Nobody can know,” he insists. “It’s my job to make people laugh.”

Stan hangs around for a little longer, recording his own Laurel and Hardy radio adventures by imitating Ollie’s voice. His decline is sad in a quiet way but his days are brightened by a new generation of young comedians coming to visit their hero.

Despite this sombre turn, Laurel and Hardy still ends on a jaunty note.

Satisfied with their life’s work, the duo meet up again and walk off into a heavenly light as Stan scratches his head.

Maybe it’s a bit too stagey, but it would be hard to imagine Laurel and Hardy meeting their maker in any other way.

By Lawrence Smith