Writer and Director: Paul Hunter
It’s well known that Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, both giants of the early Hollywood, were English; less well known, perhaps, is that both were members of the Fred Karno Company, a troupe of music hall players; Karno is credited with inventing slapstick comedy and both comedians professed a debt to him.
In 1910, the company set sail on the SS Cairnrona to tour America. Onboard were Chaplin, Laurel – then called Stan Jefferson and Chaplin’s understudy – and other members of the company, with Chaplin and Laurel sharing a cabin. So much is fact.
Told By An Idiot has taken these facts and woven a story around them, told almost entirely without dialogue (except for a couple of short songs) to a continuous piano accompaniment. We see an imagining of the voyage as well as events from Chaplin and Laurel’s lives before and after it, including a tribute to Chaplin’s difficult upbringing and Laurel’s later relationship with Oliver Hardy that ended with Hardy’s death in 1957. The whole has the feel of a silent comedy, for example, it’s told in short vignettes with plenty of physical humour, pratfalls and pathos and silent film style captions. A scene where Chaplin and Laurel are trying to settle to sleep in their cabin is comedy gold, while some scenes evoke scenes from later comedies and immediately feel familiar.
It’s difficult to truly do justice to such an imaginative piece. Writer and director Paul Hunter has remained true to the spirit of the two men and their screen personae, creating a frantic rollercoaster of laughs and invention. The multi-layered set from Ioana Curelea enables the slapstick and occasional feelings of jeopardy as well as having some amusing surprises. Zoe Rahman’s score, mainly for piano, accompanies the whole driving the action and manipulating the emotion.
Amalia Vitale brings us Chaplin. She faithfully recreates his physicality perfectly throughout; it’s hard to imagine a better portrayal of the emerging little tramp. Jerone Marsh-Reid is Laurel (and other roles), evoking his air of confusion at the world around him. The show’s main focus is on Chaplin – his style is maybe the more exaggerated – so it occasionally feels as if Marsh-Reid’s excellent Laurel is a touch underused. Nick Haverson brings usChaplin’s alcoholic dad, Fred Karno, and also Oliver Hardy, as well as being a superb drummer. He especially shines as Chaplin Sr, becoming more intimidating as the show moves on. The majority of the musical accompaniment comes from Sara Alexander at the piano, though she also takes a turn as Chaplin’s mother. On the piano, she drives the production along.
While The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel might well play fast and loose with the facts, it is a hugely enjoyable fantasy on what-might-well-have-happened. Accessible to all, whether already fans of the men or not, it’s a great night out and another triumph from Told By An Idiot.
Runs until 29 February 2020