Thursday, 6 February 2020

Review: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (Told by an Idiot)

Tuesday 4th February 2020
HOME, Manchester

I was at HOME, Manchester on Tuesday for the press night of The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. As Hannah’s Bookshelf is currently on hiatus due to North Manchester FM moving studios, I won’t be doing a radio review, but here’s the blog review…

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a production by Told by an Idiot, currently touring the UK and Luxembourg. It’s on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February.


Written and directed by Paul Hunter, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is – characteristically for Told by an Idiot – a riff on an idea, a ‘what if’ imagining provoked by a single, curious occurrence. In 1910 Fred Karno’s musical hall troupe sailed to New York to tour. Among the performers in the troupe were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel (who was Chaplin’s understudy). Promising to play ‘fast and loose with the facts’, Told by an Idiot have created an energetic, exuberant, occasionally whimsical and entirely dialogue-free conception of what the boat voyage to America might have looked like. It is, as they say, an ‘unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists’.

On a multi-level – and deceptively flexible – set designed by Ioana Curelea, Charlie (played by Amalia Vitale), Stan (Jerone Marsh-Reid) and Fred Karno (Nick Haverson) arrive to board a boat to New York. The ‘tribute’ element of the performance begins almost immediately, with silent cinema-style intertitles projected onto the stage, and a slapstick sequence involving suitcases of variable weights nostalgically evoking music hall comedy. Vitale deftly swings a case around to show the chalked legend ‘Charles Chaplin, esq.’, though her physical performance and appearance probably makes this identification somewhat redundant.

The ‘unreliable’ element of the performance comes shortly afterwards, as the storytelling quickly gives way to flights of fancy. The caption ‘Charlie bids a fond farewell to England’ signals a flashback sequence (‘A Victorian Childhood’) conjuring vignettes of Chaplin’s difficult early years, showing us a drunken father (a wonderfully funny turn by Haverson), a tragic mother (Hannah Chaplin is played by Sara Alexander), and unsympathetic landlord and doctor (both played by Marsh-Reid). Anyone familiar with Chaplin’s biography will recognize moments of accuracy in this flashback, but these are collapsed and truncated for storytelling purposes.


Less accurate (one assumes) is the arrival on stage of Stan Laurel – or ‘Stanley Jefferson, esq.’, as his suitcase proclaims – who appears to have missed the embarkation and swam through the sea to catch up with the boat. Wearing goggles and a snorkel, and plucking starfish out of his pockets, Stan arrives on stage all wide-eyed happiness, but is more like a caricature from a comedy film than a character on stage.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the production, which jumps between set-pieces set on board the ship, flashbacks to Chaplin’s early life and flashforwards to a few key moments in Laurel’s later career. With impressive energy and a rather anarchic disregard for chronology, reality and logic, this is a performance that aims to capture the spirit and fantasy of its two eponymous comedy icons, rather than documenting the ‘facts’ of their relationships and careers. Thus, Laurel’s meeting with Hardy is reimagined as something like a scene from one of their films, and Chaplin’s later role as auteur-director is evoked (with the use of a gold megaphone) in the midst of a knockabout routine in which the two men attempt to conceal money stolen from Karno. Sequences merge into each other – props moved in a flashforward to the 1970s remain in the wrong place when we return to 1910 – and some bits of the story occur only in the imagination of the characters. There’s also unexpected audience participation, and the fourth wall is broken with ease and regularity.


It feels almost inappropriate to refer to ‘storytelling’ here, as the production conjures up something that defies straightforward ideas of ‘story’ and ‘narrative’. At the heart of this is Vitale’s performance as Chaplin. Her performance is more than simply mimicry – though her replication of Chaplin’s trademark mannerisms and walk is excellent – but rather a revealing embodiment of character. Her Chaplin is impatient and driven, with moments of arrogance (to the point of near megalomania at one point), and yet is utterly charming and touched with a little melancholy (on remembering Hannah Chaplin’s decline) and a wistful romanticism (when an audience member is brought on stage to ‘swim’ with Charlie). It’s a really incredible performance, and I could have happily watched Vitale-as-Chaplin for hours.

Sadly, I’m not sure the treatment of Stan Laurel was quite equal. This is very much a Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin, with Stan Laurel as sidekick. Marsh-Reid reveals a real (and impressive) talent for physical comedy, but his performance always feels at one remove from Stan Laurel. His mimicry of Laurel’s mannerisms isn’t as accurate as Vitale’s, and the gentle naivety and innocence with which he imbues his character turns him into a foil for Chaplin (and for Oliver Hardy), rather than a more rounded character. It’s a strange contrast – Vitale plays a version of Chaplin very much informed by his off-screen persona, while Marsh-Reid plays Laurel as though he were a character in a Laurel and Hardy film. Nevertheless, Marsh-Reid’s performance is enjoyable and engaging, and there’s a (very) weird sort of chemistry between the two main characters that culminates in a clog dance that is really rather difficult to describe!


Vitale and Marsh-Reid are joined on stage by Nick Haverson, who plays a number of roles including Fred Karno and (after an audience-pleaser of a transformation scene) Oliver Hardy. Haverson is beautifully versatile in his performances, and I particularly enjoyed his turn as Chaplin’s father. The other performer is Sara Alexander, who not only performs as Chaplin’s mother, but accompanies (almost) all the action on a piano at the edge of the stage, playing an original score by Zoe Rahman. It is very hard to criticize anything about the performances in this production, as I was blown away by the energy and execution – effected by Hunter’s direction. The actors didn’t miss a single mark – and given the nature of the set design and the physicality of their performances, we would have known about it if they had!


Overall, this is indeed a strange tale, signifying... something. It certainly isn’t factual or believable or logical, but it has a curious truth to it that’s really compelling. For me, the highlight was Vitale’s mesmerizing performance as Chaplin, but the whole production exudes a spirited joy that is an awful lot of fun to watch. I’d recommend seeing this one if you can.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is on at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 8th February. It’s is currently touring the UK and Luxembourg.

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