Laurel & Hardy A Touchingly Comic Tragedy
Hollywood’s beloved slapstick duo are recreated in the Open House Theatre’s winter premiere at KiP (Kunst im Prückel)
If you asked people to name famous double acts, it wouldn’t take long to get to the names Laurel and Hardy. The stout, florid Oliver Hardy and the lean, mild-mannered Stan Laurel remain the quintessential fat man/thin man pairing, and were one of the most successful teams in early American cinema.
Despite their classic status and timeless appeal, though, the films themselves are not widely known among modern audiences, so it’s a gutsy decision by the Open House Theatre to put on a production dedicated to these two stars of a bygone era.
It pays off handsomely. Tom McGrath’s freewheeling script provides an effervescent platform for the two comedians to relate their life histories.
The venue is also well-chosen. The performance space in the basement of Cafe Prückel still functions as a cinema, and the serried ranks of chairs with red upholstery facing the raised stage create an appropriate setting for a tale about the movie business. There’s no backdrop other than a black curtain and only a minimal set, so the illusion of a film and film characters having come to life is maintained throughout the performance. Alan Burgon’s surefooted direction keeps the script moving at a good pace.
The action unfolds continuously, with Laurel and Hardy found initially in some kind of afterlife. They sketch their respective paths into show business, and detail their professional successes, private angst, various contractual and artistic woes and ultimately their passing. There are only two cast members, so Laurel (Eric Lomas) and Hardy (Robert G. Neumayr) also play the supporting roles in each other’s anecdotes.
As Oliver "Babe" Hardy, Neumayr gives a bravura performance. He glowers magnificently – brows beetling, eyes narrowing, lips pursed tightly in furious indignation – and also nails Hardy’s trademark tie-fiddling routine. As the bashful, simpering Stan Laurel, Lomas too produces a fine physical characterisation and captures the signature weeping face to a T. He’s guilty of occasionally playing to the audience rather than playing the role, but it’s a minor transgression. Throughout, the two actors interact with a relaxed, easy affinity that’s as unforced as that displayed by the original Stan and Ollie. A two-man show always runs the risk of turning into a competition between the actors for the audience’s attention, but Neumayr and Lomas work hard for each other and the resulting camaraderie feels like the real thing – bantering, prickly, but affectionate.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the mime sequences recreating some of the pair’s classic contributions to silent cinema. An early tussle with a step-ladder is merely the prelude for an hilarious routine involving paintbrushes and wallpaper which culminates in Hardy/Neumayr being crowned with a bucket.
The onstage action is wonderfully complemented by Sebastian Brandmeir on the piano. Sitting just in front of the first row of seats and sporting a straw boater and red waistcoat, a jaunty live piano adds an extra layer of Vaudeville authenticity to the proceedings, and deepens the sense of immersion.
When playing the subsidiary parts, both actors struggle a bit with the various accents but this doesn’t stop moments of real substance emerging – Laurel’s confrontation with Hollywood mogul Joe Rock, and Hardy gaining the nickname "Babe" from an Italian barber are particular highlights. By the end, with the disastrous "Atoll K" terminating their film careers and both in poor physical health, there’s genuine sadness.
"Yesterday in Hollywood I was everybody’s host; today I’m nobody’s guest," laments a despondent Stan shortly before his death.
While there’s pathos at the end (Oliver’s glum confession that "When a big fat body like mine breaks down, it’s breaking down forever" silenced the auditorium), moments of genuine psychological insight are, however, rare. The script doesn’t pose any questions as such, so what drives the two and whether we should care about them, remain unresolved. McGrath’s script offers a potted life history of its protagonists, but doesn’t give much sense of what made them tick. That’s fine during the lively early chapters, but when their travails increase towards the twilight of their careers there’s too little intensity, and consequently the second half of the show drags somewhat.
This is certainly not the fault of the actors, however, who give their all right to the end. The script’s conclusion is suitably bombastic, packed full of punch-lines, to ensure that it finishes on a high and poignant note. At the end, the two move downstage in a silent movie slow motion sequence that’s so authentic you can almost hear the whirring of the camera reels.
In all then, the production represents a successful staging of a challenging script. It would have been easy to put on a crowd-pleaser from a household-name playwright, but Open House Theatre have opted for a tougher route. Laurel & Hardy is exactly what English-language theatre in Vienna should be about – introducing audiences to unfamiliar writers and presenting innovative and experimental work. Their efforts should be applauded and judging from the enormous goodwill resonated by the capacity audience on the first night, they’ve hit the target. Catch it while you can.
Laurel & Hardy is showing Monday-Saturday through 9 March; no performances on 28 February and 7 March. Tickets only €8 on Mondays. Next up for Open House Theatre is the psychological thriller The Collector in April. Open House Theatre is also running the Open Minds Series at the Expat Center on 6 March and 11 March, which will feature rehearsed readings of possible future productions; attendees can vote for what they would like to see staged. ÷
For details see Theatre in English, page 23
or visit: www.openhousetheatre.at