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Watermill Theatre - Laurel & Hardy

13th June to 29th July 2013

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Times change; tastes in comedy change. Some comedy is more enduring than others – Terry and June and On the Buses may have less appeal nowadays than Fawlty Towers – so how would a modern audience react to the 80-year-old comedy of Laurel and Hardy? It’s childlike and innocent, with lots of slapstick, and was enormously popular in its day, but has it still got any appeal?

Tom McGrath’s gentle tribute looks at the lives of the two comedians from the perspective of their ghosts. Born in 1890 and 1892, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy started their stage lives as young performers. Hardy started performing in minstrel shows at the age of eight, and Laurel (originally Arthur Jefferson) went into vaudeville in Glasgow when he was 16. The two got together in movies in the 1920s and for 20 years were at the top of their profession, successfully negotiating the transition from silent movies to sound, before a slow decline as age and illness took their toll and their comedy fell out of fashion.

The play has just two actors, Paul Bigley (Laurel) and Gavin Spokes (Hardy), who play all the other parts including Oliver’s mum, Stan’s girlfriend and assorted wives and movie producers. As well as charting their lives, there are songs (composed by and accompanied on the piano by Richard Sisson) and comedy sketches including the memorable finale to act 1 with the incompetent decorators.

Bigley and Spokes look uncannily like Laurel and Hardy and both give energetic performances that keep the production lively and interesting. But the offstage relationship between the two wasn’t brought out. Laurel was the more talented of the two and the stronger character (in complete contrast to their screen personas); this was clearly shown in the contract negotiations with Hal Roach. How well (or badly) they got on together during their career wasn’t clear; it was only at the end that their affection for each other was shown.

Director Paul Foster’s production is a touching and enjoyable insight into the lives of two undoubtedly great comedians and well worth seeing, whether or not you find Laurel and Hardy funny.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Not a long face in the house

Laurel and Hardy at The Watermill: outstanding says our N2 reviewer

Laurel and Hardy, at The Watermill, until July 20

The Watermill's production of Laurel and Hardy is an absolute delight. Written by Tom McGrath in 1976, this bittersweet moving tale of the rise of two of cinema's iconic comedians Laurel and Hardy, is lovingly brought to the stage.

Paul Bigley, playing Stan Laurel, and Gavin Spokes as Oliver Hardy are consummate performers who bear an uncanny likeness to the famous pair and excel in their honest and sincere interpretations of the double act as they perfectly capture the essence of their characters.

We discover them suspended in limbo after they have died, with only each other for comfort and they have a need to retell their personal story that reveals much of their particular rollercoaster journey through life.

Much is revealed about their humble beginnings, with Hardy coming from the American Deep South and Laurel hailing from the North of England.

Laura McEwen's impressive evocative set in black and grey suggests the heydays of Hollywood, from the height of the silent movies to the introduction of sound to the silver screen that overtook the early music halls and Vaudeville.

Interspersed into this biographical story are some glorious classic sketches that the comedy duo performed. They instantly brought back memories, with the stepladder routine where Ollie continually catches his fingers and the hilarious wallpaper slapstick skit, with perfect comic timing.

There's a host of familiar one-liners such as Hardy asking Laurel who is on the phone and Laurel's reply: "It was someone saying it's a long distance from Atlanta Georgia so I said it sure is".

There are also many songs that helped to further their careers, including the Lonesome Pine and Shine on Harvest Moon, beautifully sung, and some scintillating dance routines that perfectly created the era.

Bigley and Stokes also play a myriad of characters that influenced their lives - from parents, friends and wives; they had six between them, with Stan marrying the same woman twice.

They made more than 40 films in the course of 10 years, working for the impresario and producer Hal Roach, who controlled their output. Stan felt that Roach was stifling their potential and eventually they parted company with the studio but this was to prove a huge mistake and their popularity began to wane.

Paul Foster directed with panache and it was sensitively lit by Richard Howell. Richard Sisson on piano had composed some fine accompanying music that was in keeping with the period and added to the action.

This was an outstanding production and is the ideal summer treat to bring a smile on your face and make you laugh out loud.

Not to be missed.


There's are reviews from The Stage ("a poignant and beautifully crafted theatrical tribute"), Marlborough People ("plenty of laughs and slapstick... interesting and entertaining"), The Good Review ("fascinating, moving and ultimately heart-warming piece of theatre" - four stars) and the Oxford Times ("the final years provide the most moving moments in this production" - four stars).