Writer and Director: Paul Hunter
Following a well-received run in 2020 and a regional revival in 2021, acclaimed theatre company Told by an Idiot’s gloriously inventive blend of visual and physical comedy Charlie and Stan returns to Wilton’s Music Hall, here as part of the London International Mime Festival.
Structured as a series of silent-movie style comic vignettes, with occasional intertitles to provide some structure to the complex mix of flashbacks, flash forwards, and dream sequences, the show riffs on the 1910 ship-board meeting between legendary comedians Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. This is not a bio-drama; in fact there is little by way of narrative structure and no real attempt at exploring the subsequent bittersweet near-abusive relationship between the two men (a connection which one of Laurel’s biographers describes as being of “schizophrenic ambiguity”). Instead, the show offers a sublimely executed tribute to the slapstick, sight gags, and vaudeville traditions of the silent comedy era. It is jam-packed with wit and inventiveness, with even a soupçon of dance and circus thrown in for good measure.
Chaplin’s slapstick acrobatics made him famous, but it was the subtleties of his acting that drove his ongoing stardom. Danielle Bird, coat too tight, trousers too baggy, carrying the star’s trademark cane and bowler-hat, captures the nuance and pathos of Chaplin’s style adroitly. There is a scene mid-way through where Bird’s Chaplin eyes an attractive audience member in the front row and engages her in a loosely choregraphed on-stage flirtation. What follows is an accomplished display of emotional interplay and empathy-building between Chaplin, the audience, and the unsuspecting audience member. The scene, like the show as a whole, comes close to being a masterclass in physical storytelling. Brilliant too is Nick Haverson who takes the role of music hall impresario Fred Karno, Chaplin’s drunken and abusive father, and, cushion stuffed inside his shirt, a suitably tubby Oliver Hardy.
Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Laurel is a tad less convincing, partly because he lacks the star’s slight, almost frail, build. Laurel’s visual mannerisms are all there: bewildered face, blank stare, childlike smile and confused head-scratching. But somehow Marsh-Reid is too physically imposing and too knowing to effectively communicate the feel of the guileless simpleton that the one-screen Laurel embodied.
Sara Alexander plays composer Zoe Rahman’s original accompanying score on a single piano, recruiting an audience member to take her place when the actor is required on stage. The music draws significantly on a melody, Smile, used in the soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times.
Designer Ioana Curelea’s clever, suitcase strewn, multi-level set provides just the right backdrop for pratfalls, frying pan jokes, and even a golf ball seemingly aimed straight out into the audience. The routines look familiar, but feel fresh and innovative, the result of clever writing and direction from Paul Hunter. This is quite a treat and a well-deserved revival.
Runs until 4 February 2023
The London International Mime Festival continues to 5 February 2023