Writer & Director: Paul Hunter
Composer: Zoe Rahman
It’s a fascinating piece of trivia that two of the biggest names in early twentieth century Hollywood comedy came over from England to America on the same boat as part of Fred Karno’s touring theatre company in 1912. Charlie Chaplin would combine enormous talent, raw ambition and a little bit of luck to become the most famous man in the world within three years of arriving. Chaplin’s then understudy Stan Laurel would become a modest success in films himself before hitting the big time when he partnered with Oliver Hardy in 1927. This fascinating piece of performance theatre (it’s not quite a play) joins these two comedy legends on that sea voyage as well as moving backwards and forwards between other major events within their lives and careers.
A wonderfully ramshackle but practical fixed set provides the players with the environment in which to conjure this story. The set and the deft use of a myriad of props and simple costume changes allows the cast of only four to present this multi-strand narrative which, as the director points out in his notes “values fiction over fact, fantasy over reality”. The linked vignettes that make up the show present sections of the characters’ lives and although all seem to have a basis in truth, they are presented wholly in the most fitting of styles: as a silent slapstick movie. Yes, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is almost completely mimed: presented in pantomime with the exception of a few music hall songs dotted throughout. The only noise that dominates this piece is Zoe Rahman’s impressively fitting score played by members of the cast but mainly by Sara Alexander on piano.
Most of the cast play a multitude of roles and all are incredibly talented at depicting different characters through their physicality alone. Nick Haverson has the most changes to make as he bounces between the ebullient Fred Karno, the hilariously prissy and easily exasperated Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s drunken estranged father and a host of other oddballs. Alexander manages to get lots of laughs from her piano stool just from her looks to the audience but is also able to stretch her legs as Charlie’s mother, while Jerone Marsh-Reid plays a range of supporting characters before appearing about half an hour in as Laurel. The shining star of the show here though is without question Amalia Vitale as Chaplin: she doesn’t just play Chaplin, she is Chaplin. Every move, every look, every pratfall is The Little Tramp to a tee. It is a truly startling performance and gives the piece a solid, sweet and very funny centre.
However, it is alongside Vitale’s stunning performance that other elements of the piece suffer somewhat. While exceptionally talented, Marsh-Reid does not embody Stan Laurel in the same way as Vitale does with Chaplin: something not helped by the script being far less interested in his character than in hers. Hunter’s script has the scenes outside of those set on the ship generally follow Chaplin’s life before the voyage and Laurel’s afterwards, and although it’s nice to see Laurel and Hardy interact with each other, it’s hard to see what relevance Stan’s parts have when the majority of the show is so focussed on Charlie.
This all said, Hunter’s script and direction are still impressive, hilarious and exceptionally true to their influences: never copying Chaplin or Laurel’s routines, but instead presenting their characters being organically involved in relevant situations. It doesn’t all work, including a prolonged sequence involving Chaplin apparently killing Laurel and having to dispose of his body (it turns out to be a dream!). It’s a scene that gives a lot of opportunity for some brilliant slapstick but it feels somewhat out of place, and despite showing scenes like Charlie’s mother be committed to an asylum and Oliver Hardy’s death, the script doesn’t have a strong enough emotional core, leaving one feeling slightly hollow at the end. Although the audience may be laughing too much to notice.
Runs until 15th February 2020