A TIP of the bowler to Jeffrey Holland, whose lifelong dream of playing Stan Laurel is sensitively realised in this one-man show, co-written with Gail Louw.
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During a visit to his dying friend’s bedside Laurel revisits key points in their lives, and reveals much about himself in the process. It’s so deftly done that when he checks on Hardy’s catheter bag you can’t help canting your head to see it too.
Holland’s face registers emotion sublimely and his stricken look upon seeing his close friend is heartbreaking. He bumbles through sickbed platitudes then reminisces about fights with Hal Roach, who made a deal with Mussolini that caused the duo to depart for Fox and then MGM where, to Laurel’s despair, “the clowns were turned into jerks.”
He’s acerbic about This Is Your Life – “goddamned free show” – and describes warm welcomes in Glasgow and Cork, where the church bells rang out their theme tune. “We had no idea how big we were,” he explains.
Laurel is a complicated man with a mammoth work ethic, but the way he clings to his former star status and curries favour with his fans verges on the pathetic. Much is made of his marriages – seven weddings to four women – and family tragedies on both sides: Laurel lost a son after nine days, and Hardy’s first wife was an alcoholic.
Holland plays it straight, but when he breaks off to perform bits from their routines he really becomes Stan Laurel, impersonating rather than inhabiting him. The effect is spooky and he’s right to use it sparingly, for the result is a more nuanced portrayal. Yet his performance is stronger than his script, which is sometimes repetitive and slow.
Until 25 August