Thursday, 30 June 2016

Jeffrey Holland in play about Stan Laurel at the Jermyn Street Theatre

I have just seen Jeffrey Holland in ... And This Is My Friend Mr Laurel, a one man show about Stan Laurel at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday. It's an ideal venue for what is an intimate experience, starkly staged, with a chair and the frame of a bed as the only props (plus, of course, the inevitable hat).

As with Neil Brand's radio play Stan (subsequently adapted for television) this has the elderly Laurel talking to an unresponsive Hardy, felled by a stroke. I don't feel inclined to compare the two plays, however, because this undoubtedly has its own power. Holland, when shifting into Stan's comic persona, summoning up some of the pair's famously stupid exchanges (he does Hardy as well), really does convey a sense of him , but it's to playwright Gail Louw's credit that this hour is not a Greatest Hits with a flimsy storyline connecting the gags. It is, in fact, an essentially melancholy spectacle: a man being prompted (by the illness of his partner) to look back on the failures and dissatisfactions in his life, puzzled or saddened by some of them, angry at others, but above all brimming with obvious affection for the man who has shared his professional life for so long.

As with some other shows, like the TV dramatisation of Morecambe and Wise's early days, I'm slightly hampered in assessing this by knowing too much. There was a Q&A in the second half and I was astonished to discover that just about everything in Laurel and Hardy's offstage, or off-camera, story seemed to come as news to everyone else - with the honorable exception of Roy Hudd (of course), who happened to be in last night's audience. I mean, it's not as if those two main John McCabe books have just come out, is it, let alone the many other tomes which followed. (Read Charles Barr if you're in a hurry.)

And Roy Hudd prompted Jeffrey Holland to recount the wonderful story about Hardy clambering up that stairs to Ray Alan's dressing room at the end of a UK tour to get the vent's autograph (a tale which happens to be included in this book) ... though the payoff, not mentioned last night though almost certainly known to Messers Hudd and Holland, is that the face of Alan's most famous dummy, Lord Charles, was subsequently based on that of Stan Laurel.

If you are coming to the show without a huge amount of knowledge about the pair's private lives, then, there will be an additional dimension of surprise, but for me it was more than enough to have such a vivid evocation of Laurel in later life, facing the possibility that everything, good and bad, is now behind him. The ending is uncompromising, which felt right. So if  you are in London or within reach, I recommend that you try to catch Jeffrey Holland's show, which is on until Saturday (2nd July); details here. There is also a matinee on the Saturday.

Other blog posts about Laurel and Hardy can be found here and here.


Rereading the above, I see I haven't quite conveyed the particular power of this conjuring of Stan Laurel. It's that he - as would seem to be the case from the letters Laurel wrote to so many correspondents in his later years - strives to be sunny side up, so that the sadness and occasional outburst of anger or pain seem to be torn from him when he is caught up in his thoughts, momentarily unaware of Hardy, and then just as quickly brushed off, just as one imagines the real life Laurel would not solicit pity.

There is a bit of "But why am I telling you all this?" when recounting the pair's history, but there's no doubt that Laurel speaking to Hardy, as opposed to an interviewer, is a far more powerful choice. And the plain, unadorned bed frame works too: we only need an indication of Stan sees and our imagination - thanks to Gail Louw's script and Jeffrey Holland's performance - does the rest.

In one of the other blog posts linked to above, I mention that a former colleague disliked the TV adaptation of Neil Brand's radio play Stan. It was, she said, because our actually seeing the bedridden Hardy changed and coarsened the play. This may not be the same piece but I think I get her point now.

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