Writer: Paul Hunter
Director: Paul Hunter
When the nineteen-year-old Charlie Chaplin boarded a ship to New York as part of Karno’s music hall company, he shared a cabin with his understudy, Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Chaplin was embarking on the journey that would take him to Hollywood. Jefferson would later find fame as Stan Laurel, with Oliver Hardy.
Theatre company Told By An Idiot imagines that transatlantic journey, a ship full of fools, the renowned Fred Karno’s Army. For an hour and forty minutes, they create a madcap, pacey story that touches on Chaplin’s childhood, his first stage appearance at the age of six and his later wealthy years. We see Stan Laurel’s struggle to make his name and his auspicious meeting with Oliver Hardy. But most of all we see what made these two international stars – the slapstick, the physical comedy, the perfect timing of everything from a leap into the air to a raised eyebrow.
This is inventive theatre-making, created by a multi-talented cast. Four performers create three times as many characters, bringing them to life through accomplished physical skills. They have little else to play with. The show is almost entirely silent, save the odd snippet of song, with flickering silent movie title cards projected on a cleverly placed curtain. What drives the whole thing along though is an original score composed by Zoe Rahman and played live by Sara Alexander. That’s not to say that Alexander doesn’t get involved in the story though, so much so that at one point she has to enlist an audience member to (rather brilliantly) take over at the piano.
There’s lots of fun like this, some light audience interaction which is nicely managed by the cast, and some shenanigans in the auditorium which don’t work so well in the HOME space which lacks the space and light to really see what’s going on. There are a few moments of calm where the music and the lights are low, creating a nice break in the pace and genuine sense of pathos.
Amalia Vitale as Chaplin is compellingly watchable. She mimics his famous walk with a brilliantly low-key ease and is tremendously expressive. Nick Haverson, who takes on the majority of the character roles, is funny and convincing as Oliver Hardy, delightfully transforming in front of our eyes as he tucks in his socks, stuffs a cushion down his front and sticks on a moustache. Together, he and Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan Laurel create a moment of clowning magic with a bag full of golf clubs.
The show could be tighter, not in terms of performance but with a bit of cutting. It’s a bit too long at a straight-through hour and forty minutes and occasionally gets a bit repetitive. Ioana Curelea’s set is inventive but sometimes feels hard to navigate, slowing down the action. The multiple levels it offers seem a little wasted and could have been used better in such a physical, fast-paced piece of theatre.
All in all, though, this is a fun piece of theatre that makes for an entertaining night out with plenty of laughs. And, although not really sold as such, an ideal one for all the family.
Runs until Saturday 8 February 2020