Another fine mess at New Wolsey

Laurel and Hardy have entertained people around the world for four generations. Andrew Clarke spoke to New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe about a new show which brings their best routines back before an audience again.

Andrew Clarke

Laurel and Hardy have entertained people around the world for four generations. Andrew Clarke spoke to New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe about a new show which brings their best routines back before an audience again.

OLLIE stares pleadingly out at his audience seeking a crumb of comfort from the crowd and says: “Well here's another fine mess you've gotten me into….”

His face registers a mute appeal for sympathy as Stan hovers beside him seemingly bewildered with a rather vacant expression on his face.

This is a typical Laurel and Hardy scene except that this sequence of events has unfolded on stage rather than on a cinema screen.

Laurel and Hardy have been reborn at the New Wolsey Theatre in a new play by Tom McGrath which has the two comedy stars looking back on their career from beyond the grave.

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The duo are trying to make sense of their lives and working out where the professional partnership ended and the personal friendship began.

Look back on the high points of a 30-year career, the boys relish the opportunity to revisit some of their greatest routines as well as reflect on a life-long friendship.

Despite Ollie's claim to be the brains of the partnership, Stan was in fact the gag man and the driving force behind their films.

Oliver Hardy was a terrific actor but he wasn't an ideas man - when not on set or in front of a camera, Babe, as he was affectionately known, could be found improving his handicap on the golf course. While Ollie was putting birdies, Stan was wrestling with ways to make people laugh.

These facts have come as something of a revelation to the New Wolsey's artistic director Peter Rowe who has been immersing himself in the world of Laurel and Hardy. He said that the play is a challenge to stage because everyone thinks they know two of cinema's greatest comic actors. But he is happy that the two actors they have cast in the roles are good enough to make the parts their own.

Stan is played by Ben Fox. Ben recently appeared in Tim Burton's film Sweeney Todd and was Peter's only choice to play Stan Laurel.

Peter said: “I think Ben is a great, natural clown and I didn't programme the show until he was free.”

Ben has appeared several times on the New Wolsey stage, including playing Wishy Washy in Aladdin and, most recently, as Jerry/Daphne (the Jack Lemon part) in Sugar, the stage version of the film Some Like It Hot.

Ollie is played by Christian Patterson, whose extensive credits include playing Nicely Nicely Johnson in the Guys and Dolls Donmar Warehouse national tour, Rev Eli and Mog Edwards in Under Milk Wood and Harry Secombe in Ying Tong - A Walk With The Goons at the New Ambassador Theatre, West End.

Christian is a real fan of Stan and Ollie and this is something of a dream role for him.

He said: “Laurel and Hardy were the first true comedy duo, real trail-blazers.

“Ollie always starts out as the straight guy and Stan as the fall guy but more often than not Ollie is the butt of the joke. He must have been black-and-blue at the end of every day, just as I am. But, what a privilege it is to take on this role, one which I have wanted to sink my teeth into for 13 years.”

For Ben the opportunity to play Stan is also a dream come true. “Like Christian I have been a fan for as long as I can remember. Stan was an incredible performer and the more time I spend in rehearsal the more I admire him.”

Their early struggles, the glory years and the slow decline - it's all tackled in Tom McGrath's affectionate and very funny play. This fly-on-the-wall show looks at the real people beneath the bowler hats.

Christian said: “The boys tell their own life stories from beyond the grave. The darker side of the movie business is here; but so too is their warm and complex relationship and their timeless comedy. Some of their greatest slapstick routines are brilliantly re-created on stage as part of the action.”

Laurel and Hardy were known the world over but in the days before celebrity magazines and gossip columns existed, little was known about their private lives.

Ben said: “Even today there is a perception that they were the same off-screen as on so this play is a really interesting look at them as the complex individuals they were as well as at their working relationship.”

While Christian and Ben get to grips with becoming Stan and Ollie as individuals, director Peter Rowe is keeping a close eye on them as a pair.

Peter maintains that at first sight Laurel and Hardy were not a natural pairing and indeed worked separately for ten years until film producer Hal Roach teamed them together for a short film, Duck Soup, in 1927.

Although not officially a team for another eight months, or six films later, it is clear from their joint appearances in movies such as Slipping Wives, Love 'Em and Weep, Sailor's Beware and Do Detectives Think? that they swiftly started working together. He said: “As with many partnerships - it all comes down to chemistry.

“It was quite a distinctive and unusual partnership in many ways. Stan was the creative one of the partnership - not that you would know that by looking at the material. Babe Hardy just used to turn up and do as Stan directed.

“The timing is what makes the films funny. Usually the funniest stuff is the simplest - it's the looks between them and the reactions to what is happening. The humour is found in the time it takes for the gag to pay off. They exploit the anticipation of their audience.

“The audience know what is coming but the boys do not - and they use that to get laughs.”

Peter said that what made him want to do the play was that it allowed them to re-visit some of their best material while at the same time exploring who the pair were as people.

He said: “This is more than a collection of their greatest hits. There is a sense of these two people having to come to terms with life, with their fame and not really understanding it.

“There is a sense of sadness about some parts when it becomes clear that they are trying to make their way in a world that they don't really understand.”

The play has the two of them existing in limbo - having been brought back from the dead - reviewing their lives, trying to make sense of it all.

He said that an interesting dilemma is formed for the actors when Laurel and Hardy's off-screen personalities are at odds with the on-screen personas.

It is wonderfully written by Tom McGrath because you are never in any doubt as to who is talking - Stan and Ollie as themselves or their on-screen counterparts.

Some of the highlights of the play are things which we didn't know before - scenes which feature Stan as a boy stealing his father's trousers, cutting the bottoms off, going on stage, being a hit with the audience and then having to confess to his father what he had done.

He said that although both Ben and Christian create the illusion of Laurel and Hardy, their performance is one of characterisation rather than impersonation - although having said that when we come to recreate their material we do try and get as close to them as we possibly can.

Peter said that he has wanted to stage a production of the play for the past four or five years.

“I think the play stands up because there is a continuing fascination with classic comedians and Laurel and Hardy are at the top of the tree still.

“The current crop of comedians still pay tribute to these guys. Paul Merton has just done a tour and a TV series celebrating comedians of a bygone age.”

Laurel and Hardy by Tom McGrath opens at the New Wolsey Theatre on April 17. Tickets can be booked online at www.wolseytheatre.co.uk