Writers: Gail Louw and Jeffrey Holland
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
…And this is My Friend Mr Laurel is a very pleasing example of theatre at its simplest. No director is listed for Jeffrey Holland’s sympathetic and mostly understated performance and the set consists of a bed frame and a chair. All we have is an immortal comedy partnership, brought to life by a talented admirer.
The premise for the play is that Oliver Hardy has suffered a disabling stroke and is silent, unable to speak, in the bed. The date is sometime in 1956, the year before Hardy’s death. Stan Laurel, having for the time overcome his own health problems, comes to visit, his own enthusiasm for fresh projects joining with his affection for Hardy in the jaunty optimism that alternates with the sad realisation that this is the beginning of the end for his friend.
Without burdening us with excessive factual detail, Gail Louw and Jeffrey Holland’s text takes in (in reverse order) their first short film, Lucky Dog (Hardy as a heavy) and their final feature film, the disastrous Atoll X, 30 years later. Hal Roach’s machinations as producer – cannily making sure their contracts ran out at different times in order to have a lever to encourage renewal – and their triumphant late tour of the British Isles are among the professional tales Holland tells, together with the innumerable weddings of both, especially Laurel who was married seven times, though only to four women.
Jeffrey Holland’s Stan Laurel is believably at one with the real man. In something of a reversal of their screen rôles, he emerges as the dominant figure, not only writing scripts and supervising gags but arguing with producers and spending hours working on the rushes, while Hardy enjoys himself on the golf course. As irritable with the opposition as he is devoted to his partner, this Laurel clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. It is a poignant and moving performance, but not really sentimental: for instance, he rails at the phony emotion of Ralph Edwards’ This is Your Life.
Wisely, Holland only hints at the gestures, expressions and phrases that Laurel immortalised, except in the short extracts from Laurel and Hardy films when the lights change, the music plays and he goes into an excellent full-scale impression of the great comedy duo.
…And This is My Friend Mr Laurel runs for a mere 55 minutes, well suited to events such as the Edinburgh Fringe, but for the theatre tour this is boosted to a full-ish evening by a question and answer session, with the amiable Mr Holland after the interval.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed