Stop me if you’ve heard this one: two blokes walk into a bar…….
A crowded pub forces desperate and lonely Harry (Mike Goodenough) and withdrawn Sam (Damien Lyne) into an awkward conversation covering the arbitrary nature of the universe. A growing familiarity and a series of coincidences make them consider if they might actually be the reincarnations of comedy legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Writer/ director Paul Hodson avoids making Way Out West just a replay of the greatest routines of Stan and Ollie. Excerpts are used with restraint and always to advance the plot. It is a charming and very funny story but the central concept becomes implausible as the characters do not seem to believe that they might really be reincarnations. Hodson struggles to bring the play to an end; the suggestion that the meeting of the two men is due to a spiritual intervention to dissuade them from suicide lacks credibility as neither character convinces as being that desperate.
Hodson takes the audacious approach of creating the packed bar entirely in the imagination of the audience – there is neither set nor props and only two actors. Goodenough and Lyne rise to the challenge of miming their way through the play with style. This hyper-real approach creates an atmosphere in which it is acceptable for the characters to address the audience direct but limits our emotional involvement. For some reason Hodson undermines his careful work with a cheap gag towards the end.
The play features excellent and contrasting performances. Goodenough subtly uses the well-known traits of Hardy (the dainty gait, fiddling with his tie) to bring out the social inadequacies and desperate longing of Harry. Lyne on the other hand suggests that Sam is an ordinary bloke who occasionally, and to his own bewilderment, becomes possessed by the spirit of Stan Laurel. Both actors are great mimics and it is a pleasure that the conclusion allows them to cut loose and deliver the famous dance routine that brings the play to a crowd – pleasing end.