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.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

My Year in Books 2020: January

I've decided to carry on with my monthly book review posts (can you believe this is the third year now!). I'm finding it a good way of keeping track of the books I read for pleasure - much more useful than using an external site - so you're kind of stuck with these posts for now!

First post of the year, so it's my short reviews for January! Here's what I read...

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, as I really like Robert Galbraith’s fiction. (Weirdly, I don’t like any J.K. Rowling books – a fact that baffles me.) Lethal White is the fourth book about private detective Cormoran Strike, and his secretary – then assistant – now partner – Robin Ellacott. The story opens with a prologue that follows on directly from Career of Evil, but then it jumps ahead to the following year. After the events of the earlier book, Strike’s detective agency has been thrust into the public eye (well, even more so, as the events of The Cuckoo’s Calling also brought it some notoriety). As well as juggling multiple cases, Strike is offered two intriguing puzzles to solve. Firstly, an apparently mentally ill man called Billy arrives at his office claiming to have witnessed a murder when he was a child. Secondly, an MP asks for Strike’s help, as he’s being blackmailed. Of course, it’s not long before there’s a hint that the two cases might be connected somehow. I will admit, I was dubious about the length of the book before I read it. The paperback is a bit of a doorstop, and way longer than is usual for the genre. However, as with the other Strike novels, it’s incredibly readable, and so it really didn’t feel overlong. Yes, perhaps, some of the sections about Strike and Robin’s relationships could have been cut down slightly, but there’s an excellent mystery (with well-placed clues) at the book’s heart.

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas (2016)

This next one is a book I picked up in a charity shop in Aberystwyth when we stayed there last November. I thought I’d read another book by the author, but I realized afterwards that I’d got confused about that. Still, the blurb was intriguing enough, even though I had a suspicion it might be a domestic noir-type thriller (and I’ve still got a strange relationship with that genre). Local Girl Missing is the story of Francesca (and it’s partly told from her perspective), who grew up in a small seaside town in the South-West. Twenty years ago, Francesca’s best friend Sophie fell off the old pier, in an incident that has haunted her ever since. Now Sophie’s brother has called Francesca to drop the bombshell that Sophie’s remains have finally been found, and he wants her to return to Oldcliffe to help him find out what happened. Francesca’s narration is interspersed with entries from Sophie’s diary in the run-up to her disappearance. As she and Daniel speak to Sophie’s old friends, Francesca feels increasingly (and almost tangibly) haunted by the past – is there something else going on here? I’ve got to admit, I did twig what was going on a bit before the end, but I still enjoyed Local Girl Missing. It’s a quick read, but it’s well-paced and Douglas builds the suspense effectively, plus I found some of the flashbacks to Francesca and Sophie’s relationship both nostalgic (as I’m roughly the same age as the characters) and convincing.

The Wych Elm by Tana French (2018)

I was looking forward to this next one, but ultimately it was a teeny bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, The Wych Elm is excellently written and has a compelling story. It’s just that I’m such a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels that this one had a lot to live up to. The Wych Elm is a standalone –a mystery thriller rather than a detective novel. The central character is Toby, a privileged (and rather charming) man in his late twenties, looking forward to a happy future with his girlfriend Melissa. One night, everything changes, as Toby suffers a life-altering and traumatic assault. In recovery, he returns to his old family home (now his uncle’s), as his uncle has developed terminal cancer. Toby needs to heal, but he also needs to take care of his relative. However, a chance discovery in the garden upends Toby’s life even further – a skull is found in the eponymous wych elm tree. Perhaps Toby’s happy conception of his life – and his family – aren’t strictly accurate. As I say, the story is pretty compelling, but I found it didn’t grip me quite as much as the Dublin Murder Squad novels. Some of the revelations are a little far-fetched, though I did like the way in which Toby’s patchy memories become tangled and uncertain. The idea that a family history might be misremembered or experienced differently was definitely interesting, but there was something a little flat about this particular family.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost (2019)

I picked this one up (as usual) on a whim at the supermarket. The blurb looked like it might be a bit like And Then There Were None – seven guests check into a guesthouse, but it looks like they might not all survive. And… I was right. The Guesthouse begins like a millennial version of And Then There Were None. The central character, Hannah, is a twenty-five-year-old woman who is dealing with some stuff. She checks herself into the eponymous guesthouse for a week’s holiday to take her mind off things, and also to reconnect with her past. The guesthouse is in a remote location in Ireland, and the access is not as easy as the website promised. And there’s a storm coming too… I’m in two minds about this one. I loved the way Frost updated the central conceit of And Then There Were None for the twenty-first century, and the way the guests were brought to (and kept) in the guesthouse was definitely pretty cool. I also found Hannah – in the first half of the book – an engaging and relatable character. However, the plot isn’t quite as classy as Christie’s (and I shouldn’t keep comparing the two books, but it’s impossible not to). Rather than ramping up suspense and suspicion, The Guesthouse instead ramps up the backstory to the point of (almost) implausibility. I became less invested as the story went on, and the eventual reveal(s) really stretched my credulity. It’s a shame, because the book starts well.

The Family by Louise Jensen (2019)

I bought The Family in a charity shop in Truro at Christmas. I didn’t realize until part way through that I’d chosen to read a book with almost the exact same image on the cover as The Guesthouse – that was a complete coincidence. And, cover art aside, The Family is a bit different to The Guesthouse. Laura and her daughter Tilly are left grieving and in debt following the death of Gavan, Laura’s husband. A chance kindness from a woman called Saffron (someone Laura vaguely knows through her work) leads the women to a farm in Mid Wales that’s being run as a community/commune by a mysterious young man called Alex. As the book hints from its very first page, bad things are going to happen on the farm. And they do. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. I struggled to sympathize with the characters, mostly because they weren’t plausible for the ages they were meant to be – Laura doesn’t feel like a 34-year-old, and Alex isn’t believable as a 28-year-old. I also found I was drawn out of the story a lot by little anachronisms and inaccuracies, and by a timeframe that doesn’t quite make sense. No spoilers, but the ending was probably the best part of the plot, as it moved the story back into the realms of the believable. However, it was hard to get too enthused, as I really hadn’t engaged with the characters. Overall, this one probably needed much tighter editing.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge (2019)

The next book I read this month was one I picked up at the supermarket because the blurb looked intriguing (I probably have to stop doing that!). She Lies in Wait is a cold-case detective novel. Teenager Aurora Jackson disappeared thirty years ago, after going camping with her older sister and her friends. When a body is discovered in the woods, it quickly becomes apparent that Aurora has finally been found. A murder investigation is launched by DCI Jonah Sheens, and Aurora’s sister Topaz and her friends are the prime suspects. She Lies in Wait is a fairly standard cold-case story, with a bit of Secret History-esque conflict between the rather privileged bunch of suspects (in fact, one of the characters actually draws attention to the similarity in an explicit reference to Donna Tartt’s novel). It’s a very readable story, and there are some interesting interactions between the police team, but I found the actual mystery at the heart of the book to be a little disappointing. The problem is that there are clues implicating all of the suspects, and nothing that points to any particular one of them. By the time the reveal came, I felt like it could have been any of them, and I felt a bit cheated as a reader, as I could only guess the answer, not solve it. Nevertheless, Lodge is a good writer, and I did enjoy the way the story unfolded. Not the best mystery, but definitely not the worst one either!