I had to smile when Bob Kingdom first appeared in his new solo touring show as a ghostly Stan Laurel wearing a long white nightgown and bed socks. Not because overbearing Oliver Hardy had just kicked Stanley out of bed for creating “another fine mess”. It just struck me that dead comedians are a funny lot.
After tickling our ribs in real life – sometimes dying a death on stage – they are often rewarded with a last laugh in plays. Michael Barrymore recently resurrected the late Spike Milligan in Surviving Spike at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. And Tony Hancock, the Marx Brothers, Morecambe and Wise, Max Wall, Hylda Baker, Joyce Grenfell, Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd and even the long-forgotten 1940s sketch comedian Sid Field (cleverly incarnated by David Suchet in William Humble’s What A Performance) are just some of the laughtermakers who have been exhumed after entering comedy heaven.
As for Laurel and Hardy, playwright Tom McGrath had a stab at capturing the life and times of one of the most famous comedy duos ever in his touring play Laurel and Hardy and Neil Brand’s 2004 radio play Stan, about Laurel’s final visit to see the dying Hardy (with Laurel played by Tom Courtenay), was later adapted for television.
Fortunately, Kingdom doesn’t simply re-hash the Laurel biography – British-born; performing as a boy in his father’s chain of variety theatres; emigrating to Hollywood along with fellow Brit Charlie Chaplin; paired by producer Hal Roach with Oliver Hardy to form the world’s greatest film comedy team; his eight marriages to four different women; and finally ending up in crap full-length features in the 1940s that made the partnership look old-fashioned and past it.
Instead, he presents a genius gag man revered by the like of Peter Sellers who sadly realises that he can never fully be alive when the other half is missing. “Without Ollie I don’t exist,” explains Kingdom’s wan-faced Laurel, as if he were a character out of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
After morphing himself into Dylan Thomas, Edgar J Hoover and Truman Capote in his previous award-winning one-man turns, Stan Laurel presents Kingdom with a double challenge as an actor. Laurel only ever makes sense with Hardy. And with Stan Laurel you are never quite sure where the on-screen performance ended and real life began.
He also rarely told jokes in the Laurel and Hardy films. Whenever he did they were usually silly or slightly surreal. like, “What’s the difference between a myth and a moth? A myth is a moth’s sister?” Laurel’s child-man comedy magic was never just in the visual gags either, but in his relationship with the exasperated Ollie.
So does Laurel stand up without Hardy? Kingdom, who has written the monologue with assistance from Laurel’s real-life daughter, was hesitant on press night and seemed as if he needed some invisible mending on his own material. Even so, he does manage to weave the biographical information into the more interesting theme that everyone needs an Ollie in their lives. But without Laurel’s missing buddie, it’s still going to be hard to make this dead comic dead funny.