Movie director Leo McCarey has a proposal for producer Hal Roach. He has seen Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel acting 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 comedians would play to their distinctive characteristics: Hardy as the southern gentleman, Laurel as the wiry Brit. McCarey thinks they’ll be funny together.
Not only that, this will be an antidote to the madcap tomfoolery of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the Keystone Cops. His genius idea is for them to play it slow.
This is the cue, in the late Tom McGrath’s play, 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. Wordlessly, Stan and Ollie run through an extended dance of ducks, dives and crashes. Heads get bashed, ties get slashed and paste gets everywhere. Nearly a century on, the audience guffaws.
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 comic genius of Stan and Ollie, reprising some of their finest sketches, but also laments the passing of their moment.
Written with the fluidity of a dream, it charts the biographical details, from music hall and vaudeville to cinema success, via multiple wives and misguided deals. But rather than a straight tribute, it is a wistful commentary on getting older, a reflection on the impossibility of capturing a fleeting instance of inspiration, laughter and camaraderie.
Returning to the parts they last played in 2005, Stephen McNicoll and Barnaby Power are a consummate team. McNicoll, uncannily like Hardy in stature and manner, is all grace, pomposity and flourishes of the tie. Power, always deferential, captures the sleepy eyelids, lolloping gait and endless double takes of a tuft-haired Laurel.
Oddly, the theme of ageing is less poignant now that the actors are closer to the ages of the comedians in their heyday. But on a monochrome set by Neil Murray on which even the pies are grey, Tony Cownie’s production remains a bittersweet celebration of the silly and sublime.
At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 25 June.