Saturday, 29 September 2012

Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts (review of Stan Laurel play on BBC Radio 4)

Have just listened for the second time to Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts, the Afternoon Drama about the early life of Stan Laurel. It will be available on BBC iplayer, here, until next Friday and it's well worth a listen.

Without looking at the various books about Laurel and Hardy I can't say offhand where available facts end and the writer Colin Hough's imagination begins. I daresay there will be others ready to do so, though you will have to seek them out for yourself.

What I can declare, however, is that it's a well crafted play which has precisely the right narrowness of focus to fit that forty five minute slot, and doesn't force in clunky references to Stan's future pairing: there are no later catchphrases casually dropped into the dialogue. True, here are delicate foreshadowings for afficionados in such matters as choice of music, or Stan's complaint to his father that the crude early films he is showing in his theatres don't have stories, but you don't really need to know anything about Laurel and Hardy to enjoy it.

Incidentally, there seemed to be two separate lots of advance publicity material for the play, one which suggested the focus was on Laurel's (or Jefferson's, as he was) relationship with his mother, and another which sold it as a play about his debut at Glasgow's Panopticon Theatre. In the event, these were intertwined, and what we got was a story about a young man, no longer content with helping his theatre manager father, who is encouraged by his frail, former actress mother (below) to try his hand at the comedy she knows to be instinctive in him - even though it means she will lose him to the world.

The moderate success of his stage debut (snatched back from defeat by his father, the play suggests) inevitably leads to that parting in a final scene which is played touchingly yet unsentimentally as mother and son guy a melodrama, their shared private language, and a reminder of their closeness at the start of the play (before Stan's dad had hired a nurse, partly to ensure that Stan would not be distracted from helping him). It's a perfect ending to a neatly structured play which doesn't purport to be about the whole of Stan Laurel's life, just an imaginative take on the lead up to a formative event and its consequences.

It's also a scene which brings to mind Sadie Bartholomew's leavetaking of her son in Peter Bowker's TV play Eric and Ernie, about the early days of Morecambe and Wise. In both cases a hint of outward emotion from one party is immediately slapped down by the other, but you are never in any doubt about the significance of the moment, that this is, in effect, a farewell.

Incidentally, I can't say too much without spoiling the surprise, but it may be worth mentioning that Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts, an allusion to a particularly contemptuous retort of Oliver Hardy's in the short County Hospital, is not the catchpenny title it might seem, and one more instance of the care which seems to have been taken with this play. But you'll need to listen to it to know what I'm talking about. Here, handily isolated on youtube, is that moment in the film:

So - after this paean of praise - can I find no fault with the play? Well, as I said, I haven't gone back to the books so I can't go over it point by point, and I don't feel inclined to do so, at least not for public consumption. Toying with a biographical drama myself just now, and being tormented by half a dozen different equally plausible structures in which to house my characters, what strikes me most about Colin Hough's play is that the shape he has chosen seems just right. It's only a snapshot from Laurel's life, but one with considerable depth of field: whether or not his imagination has built on or reshaped existing evidence we can see the pressures on husband, wife and son.

Mrs Jefferson's nurse is more of a comic, cartoonish part, but as that has the effect of stressing the mother and son closeness as co-conspirators, and indeed brings out Stan's comic potential as he mimics the nurse's lugubrious manner (she is "backed up to Bridgeton"), there is no doubt of her importance to the play.

But if I were to be picky, then the odd anachronism occasionally assails - or mildly irritates - the ears. I admit I'd be hard pushed to find an equivalent, but was the word "prequel" in common usage in the 1900s? And a phrase like "no problem" or Stan's dad imploring "Talk to me!" seem redolent of more recent times. (I mean, what're they gonna do next - hug?)

But these are minor distractions at worst. Earlier I referred to Stan's dad intervening in his debut performance which, to the best of my dim recollection, was not actually the case, but if it tells a bigger truth about his wish to support his son, then that's fine. The main point is that Colin Hough has created a story which feels right, feels consistent, and now makes me wants to go back to the sourcebooks, not to exclaim "Aha!" in an annoyingly high-pitched tone of voice but simply to see what he has done and the decisions he has made.

I can, however, already point to one pleasing detail which suggests he has certainly done his homework. Researching someone else a few months ago, I happened to be reading about Bugler Dunne, the boy hero of the Battle of Colenso (he refused to sound the retreat and became a national hero). I then found on this site a letter from Stan Laurel confirming to a fan that he had played Dunne in a pageant organised by his father in South Shields celebrating the Relief of Mafeking. I mention this because Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts opens with Stan reciting a poem which seems to be parodying Bugler Dunne's exploits: a nice touch.

As mentioned earlier, Neil Brand's radio play about Stan Laurel was made into a TV play which a colleague involved in radio drama found less than satisfactory. Which makes me wonder: could Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts make the transition? There's a brief interlude where Stan, sent on a fool's errand by his dad (delivering a "music box", no less), has to hoist himself on and off a couple of crowded trams, and there's a bit of silent comedy piano music just about audible in the background which suggests potential, but I'm not sure. It would be a stretch at ninety minutes, and padding out with theatre acts, say, would loosen the sense of a taut narrative, unless you weave in another plot strand.

I suspect it would have to be thoroughly reworked, become something different. But even if that does happen at some point in the future, this radio play will still stand as a highly creditable piece of work on its own, so congratulations to all concerned. As it's the writing side which interests me most, in addition to Colin Hough I will single out producer/director Gaynor MacFarlane, in case she had a hand in advising on structure.

And as I wrote the above, it just occured to me: whatever the difficulties of a TV adaptation, the idea of filming in the Panopticon itself, the old stage newly revealed, the redundant toilet block installed in the interregnum quite bashed into b*ggery, is an irresistible thought ...

Review of Eric and Ernie (Peter Bowker) here.

Earlier post about this play, the Panopticon, and other stage and radio plays about Laurel and Hardy here.

Randy Skretvedt's account of Stan's debut here.

Stan's father on "My Lad Laurel" (Picturegoer magazine) in a sidebar (scroll down) here on the Letters from Stan website; the photograph below of his father in 1932 also comes from there.

Review by Glenn Mitchell of Neil Brand's radio play Stan, directed by Ned Chaillet, here. Wonder what he makes of Hard Boiled Eggs and Nuts?