Writer/Director: Paul Hunter
In 1910, music hall entrepreneur Fred Karno set sail from England to America with a troupe of performers, including Charlie Chaplin and his understudy, Stanley Jefferson (who would later change his stage name to Stan Laurel). The pair shared a cabin on the voyage, and went on tour the US as part of “Karno’s Army”, before each went on to use their love of slapstick storytelling to shape Hollywood comedy in the silent era and beyond.
That reality is the foundation for Told By An Idiot’s production, which like the movies the actors came to dominate plays out in mime, accompanied by a live piano score composed by Zoe Rahman and played by Sara Alexander (who also doubles as Charlie’s mother).
While the 1910 voyage forms the backbone of the 90-minute piece, time slips and slides all over the place, as we explore both Laurel and Chaplin’s British origins and their Hollywood success.
Central to the show’s success is a sublime interpretation of Chaplin by Amalia Vitale. Her waddling gait and knack for sight gags are a direct visual match for all the elements that made Chaplin’s films so beloved. Like the actor himself, Vitale is also able to switch to pathos in a heartbeat: played out in the broad, melodrama-dripped brushstrokes of the silent era they may be, but Chaplin’s struggles with his mother’s mental illness and his father’s alcoholism provide an emotional foot to a show largely concerned with raucous comedy.
In contrast, Jerone Marsh-Reid is harder to recognise as Laurel, lacking that sense of hangdog befuddlement so redolent of Laurel’s film career with Oliver Hardy (played, as are many other roles, by Nick Haverson). Indeed, with his posture of hunched shoulders and ill-fitting jacket, more than once he reminds one more of Norman Wisdom than Stan Laurel.
Where March-Reid does succeed is in replicating Laurel’s trademark of escalating repetition, his slapstick routines starting simple and becoming more elaborately chaotic as they progress. His interplay with Vitale is a delight in itself, and while the segments depicting his relationship with Haverson’s Oliver Hardy may be all too brief, they are a welcome reminder of what endeared the couple’s films to the world.
In later years, Laurel always talked about his early relationship with Chaplin and his admiration for his peer; Chaplin remained silent about his ex-Karno colleague. That discrepancy forms the basis to one of this slapstick show’s weirdest moments (of which there are many), where Stan imagines a reunion with Charlie that culminates in the pair clog dancing to hip-hop beats. The routine, choreographed by ZooNation’s Nuno Sandy, is as delightful as it is anachronistic, and makes one yearn for clog-wearing b-boys to be seen more often.
The trouble with a show that is based upon time-hopping skits is that there is little in the sense of a dramatic conclusion to end the show. As it is, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel fizzles out rather than exits on a high. Even then, Told By An Idiot’s tribute to the masters of silent slapstick can’t help but leave the broadest of grins on its audience’s faces.
Runs until 18 January 2020