RADIO PLAY REVIEW
By Glenn Mitchell
Afternoon Play: Stan, written by Neil Brand; directed by Ned Chaillet; BBC Radio 4.
Neil Brand's play, Stan, was broadcast in BBC Radio 4's 45-minute Afternoon Play slot on Friday 30 July 2004.
The role of Stan Laurel was taken by Tom Courtenay, one of Britain's most respected actors and, judging from his comments on the play in the BBC's listings magazine Radio Times, a genuine L&H buff. As the off-screen Stan Laurel, Courtenay is very effective, suggesting considerable study of the recorded interviews made by the comedian in later life. Courtenay does, though, fall into the trap - common among Laurel impersonators - of portraying Stan's screen character with a flat, dull, expressionless voice, which is more a perceived image than the reality (Stan's on-screen voice actually employs far more inflection than is generally realised, and undulates markedly in pitch). Interestingly, during moments where circumstance prompts the real-life Stan to lapse partially into character - notably during his first, cautious approach to Hardy's bedroom - the authentic on-screen voice comes through. As the other half of the partnership, Ewan Bailey proves an adept Oliver Hardy, both as an active man and - a particularly impressive feat in radio - a man rendered incapable of speech.
Bailey has to function thus for most of the proceedings, for the action is based around the final meeting of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a few days before Hardy's death in August 1957. By that time Hardy had been immobilised by a severe stroke. It is known that, when making their real-life farewell, the two men communicated entirely by expression and gesture, and much of the play concerns their efforts to convey their feelings, and to recap their lives and careers, in what must inevitably be a one-sided conversation.
Well, not entirely. There is some interaction between the two of them, as the stricken Hardy is still capable of the wordless `mm-hmms' and melodic tittering we know from his screen character. Also, Hardy is given full powers of speech within a nightmare of Stan's in which they perform a comic routine at an undertaker's (entitled `Casket Cases'), culminating in Ollie being forced to get into a coffin. Though some might perceive this as being in poor taste, there may be others who would justify it as being perhaps no more than an exaggeration of Stan Laurel's well-documented fondness for macabre humour, of the sort that so often appalled Hal Roach. Though clearly designed to suit the theme of the play - and to imply, perhaps, how the distressed Stan Laurel might deal with Hardy's imminent death in his subconscious - the appropriateness of this sequence might fairly be described as a matter for debate. This dream sequence is, by the way, accompanied by some authentic-sounding L&H reactions - particularly those Hardy yells - plus Leroy Shield's incidental music, presumably drawn from the recordings made by the Beau Hunks Orchestra. In describing his dream, Stan makes a remark to the effect that the Front Office would never have approved gags about funerals, a slight incongruity when considering that he also talks about Way Out West, which has that splendidly macabre line, `Well, we hope he is, they buried him!'
This minor inconsistency brings to mind a certain number of factual errors. Some of these may be said to fall into the category of artistic licence, others perhaps not. Laurel initially addresses Hardy as `Ollie' before gradually switching to the nickname he would genuinely have used, `Babe'. This was obviously for the benefit of listeners who would otherwise have been confused as to whom `Babe' referred, though one feels there might have been a different way of conveying this. Stan tells Babe that they have just received an offer to make a TV series called Laurel & Hardy's Fabulous Fables, an offer that in truth came shortly after their appearance on This Is Your Life at the end of 1954 (and which was cancelled following Laurel's minor stroke in 1955). Their `church bells' welcome to Cobh, Ireland, took place in 1953 rather than 1947, so one suspects Babe might not have previously expressed misgivings about their European reception in the fashion suggested within the play. Stan, aware of Leo McCarey's contribution to the birth of the L&H team, would have been unlikely to say that it was Roach who put them together (as a matter of record, Hal Roach was absent from the studio for an extended period at the time of the first L&H films), and one suspects that `Roach' here refers to the man himself rather than the studio that bore his name. They most emphatically did not `play husband and wife' in Their First Mistake, in which they - or, more to the point, Ollie on behalf of himself and his wife - adopted a baby rather than `had' one. One wonders if there may have been confusion between Their First Mistake and Twice Two (in which L&H play themselves and each other's wives), or more specifically with a very widely-circulated Belgian ad (see poster on the left) for the latter that falsely conveys the impression of L&H playing a married couple who have had at least one baby (there are several screaming infants depicted in the artwork). Stan refers to them making Way Out West in 1937 - admittedly the year of its release - whereas it actually had been made and previewed by December 1936. Stan's wife's name, `Ida', is pronounced here as spelt, though it is known that in her case, it was pronounced `Eda' (a spelling Stan would sometimes use in correspondence, to clarify the pronunciation).
One can readily accept, for the sake of emphasis, the implication that Hardy's drastic loss in weight followed his stroke rather than pre-dated it. In at least a few cases, though, the inaccuracies seem to serve no particular dramatic purpose, something which becomes all the more irritating when one recognises that this is otherwise a very well-researched and well-intentioned play. There are many aficionado-pleasing references, ranging from the familiar (`hard-boiled eggs and nuts') to the decidedly lesser-known, not least that about a hopeless horse named `Doughboy', on which Hardy is supposed to have lost a considerable sum of money (a nod towards Babe's cameo in Frank Capra's film Riding High). Stan entertains his friend by describing a new routine, each aware that it will never be performed, just as his real-life counterpart was to continue devising L&H material long after Babe's death. The acid test, as is so frequently the case, is that Ollie's catchphrase is quoted correctly: Another nice mess. This aspect displays a tangible affection for, and knowledge of, the subject, as do the often genuinely moving scenes between the distraught Laurel and the dying Hardy. Similarly, much research has also gone into the nature of strokes, the effects upon their victims and the attendant difficulties, as when Hardy is triggered into particularly active, comprehending response when receiving certain stimuli, despite having seemed like a man who was no longer there.
Is the play a harrowing experience? Yes, by its very nature, it has to be, but it's also sensitively handled, contains a perhaps surprising number of laughs and probably captures much of the mood of their genuine farewell. There is a kind of punchline, providing both men with amusement through being their final, inadvertent comic routine. Throughout their conversation, Stan has misunderstood Babe's periodic gestures towards his throat as being requests for water, and has been giving him draught after draught. Stan eventually realises that Babe has been trying to simulate his tie-twiddle gesture, and is now so full of unwanted glasses of water that he is desperate to pass some of it. Once again, there is no doubt that at least some L&H admirers will find this to be in questionable taste, but there's a suspicion - just maybe - that Stan and Babe might have laughed, too.
- Glenn Mitchell.
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