Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

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.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Review: The Melting of a Single Snowflake (Salford Arts Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 17th July 2019
Salford Arts Theatre

The Greater Manchester Fringe continues throughout July, and I continue to review shows for this blog and for North Manchester FM. In 2017, I reviewed two Fringe shows, and in 2018, I reviewed eleven. I definitely think I’m on track to beat that number in 2019! On Wednesday 17th July, I saw The Melting of a Single Snowflake at Salford Arts Theatre, a new play by writer-in-residence Libby Hall. Hall was one of the people I interviewed back in June for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special, so once again I was really looking forward to seeing this one.


Written by Hall and directed by Roni Ellis, The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious ensemble piece featuring performers from Salford Arts Theatre’s Young Performers Company. As I talked about with Hall in our interview, the play grew out of workshops involving the young actors, meaning that the company played an integral role in generating and developing ideas for Hall’s script.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake takes place in the aftermath of the disappearance of a schoolboy, Sam, during the summer holidays. The cast (of eleven young actors) play a group of Sam’s friends, peers and neighbours who are brought together through their shared (if a little tenuous in some cases) involvement in Sam’s life. The real ambition of the piece lies in the fact that the story is carried entirely by the young performers (there are no adult characters in the play), and also in the complexity of the relationships that are evoked through the dialogue. This isn’t a straightforward tale of the powerful bonds of friendship, but rather a story that reminds us young people have just as many varied reasons for spending time together as adults do.

Set during the school holidays and with a recorded audio backdrop of news reports on adolescent mental health, gang crime and Sam’s disappearance, The Melting of a Single Snowflake unabashedly sets itself up to tackle ‘big’ issues. As the young people gather to discuss the missing boy, conversations range from knife crime to drugs, from social media to sexuality. There is a frankness to these conversations, which is both hard-hitting and humorous, and some of the issues raised are handled in surprising and nuanced ways.

In particular, I found several of the conversations about Cameron (played by Adam Marsland)’s sexuality offered a refreshing and sensitive take. However, this was done without heavy-handed virtue-signalling, as the overall message was punctuated by a range of responses – from Kay (Calia Wild)’s concern that the group is too young for romantic relationships, to Alfie (Dillon Parker)’s clumsy macho posturing, to Amber (Sienna Kavanagh)’s comical confusion of bisexuality with bipolar disorder. While some poetic licence is employed to have all of these reactions occurring openly and simultaneously, The Melting of a Single Snowflake offers a convincing microcosm of the confusion and conflict that accompanies coming-of-age.

I’ve used the word ‘conversations’ a lot in this review, and it feels like the most apt description of how story is constructed in the play. The action takes place off-stage – indeed, some has occurred before the play begins, and some will occur in the time that elapses during the interval – and so everything we know about these characters, about their world, and about the missing boy Sam is conveyed though the dialogue. This is a challenge for the cast, but – aided by smart direction by Ellis – they are up to the task. With the group coming and going from the stage, and interacting in different combinations at different times, a sense of flow and development is created.


The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much an ensemble piece, and it’s not really possible to single out individual performances or characters as ‘central’. Each one carries a part of the story, and the play’s strength lies in its group dynamic, from Josie Leigh’s belligerent wannabe boxer Mia to Jasmin Marsland’s know-it-all Demi.

I enjoyed the dynamic between Jake (Charlie Kenney) and Jodie (Elizabeth Pearson), two very different young people caught up in a world of crime that’s way outside their control. Leia Komorowska is great as fragile and haunted outsider Levi, and Joel Hill reveals excellent comic timing in his performance as Devon, a filter-less chatterbox whose near-continuous off-the-wall monologue throws the audience off-guard for one of the play’s more aggressive sucker-punches. Last but by no means least, Vincent Purcell plays Tom, Levi’s older brother and an eloquent observer of the group and its various social predicaments. In places appearing like a character somewhat out of time, Tom emerges as a detached and astute narrator of human frailty – but one surrounded by darkness and grief.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is very much a game of two halves. On the one hand – and probably the more dominant aspect of the first act – it is a narrative that highlights the fears, concerns and disillusionments of young people, signalled by the news commentary. In the face of a crisis in mental health care, knife crime, a gang that may or may not have killed their friend, and (I don’t want to sound old here) a complete lack of adult support or intervention, how are these young people supposed to cope? However, there is another intriguing and compelling story running parallel to this, a much more personal (and, in many ways, more old-school theatrical) tale that comes into its own in the second act – but to say anymore would give spoilers! All credit to Hall, though, for bringing these two aspects together into a strong overall story.

In addition to the great writing, direction and performances, The Melting of a Single Snowflake also features a stylish set design by Roni Ellis and Scott Berry, which uses scattered debris and rubbish (including – I’m sure I saw – an old discarded municipal street sign for the Salford Arts Theatre’s predecessor theatre!) and a graffitied wall to effectively evoke both locale and the atmosphere.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is an ambitious and thought-provoking piece of theatre, which showcases the talents of the Salford Arts Theatre’s young performers company and of its writer-in-residence, Libby Hall (who came through the company herself). A very enjoyable show that packs an unexpected punch.

The Melting of a Single Snowflake is on at Salford Arts Theatre on 17th-19th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. For the full programme of Fringe shows on this year, visit the festival website.