Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’ which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 29th February … and touring.
As every famous fact about Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel has been recorded, catalogued and already turned into film or theatre, it seems quite reasonable to now start making stuff up. And that is precisely what Told By An Idiot Theatre Company have done. To their fans, this won’t come as a surprise. It is true that Chaplin and Laurel (then called Jefferson) did meet working for Fred Karno’s vaudeville company and were on the same boat to The States. But what happened to the fledgling performers before they separately found fame and fortune is open to conjecture.
In Paul Hunter’s creation the two men seem strangely competitive; and not just about who gets the top bunk in their shared cabin. Who is the funniest? Who is the better clown? And who will conquer the world?
On a multi-level set scattered with paraphernalia, a fireman’s pole and a drum kit, we watch key moments from their lives lovingly reimagined in no particular order. Chaplin’s parents appear before us; his father singing a drunken Cockney song, his mother straight jacketed in an asylum. We learn how Charlie’s stage debut may have occurred and are asked to go along with the idea that he was born with his bowler hat on.
Stan Laurel arrives on board wearing a snorkel and with starfish in his suit pockets. That first encounter with Oliver Hardy, and Hardy’s fatal heart attack, encapsulate the joy and pathos of the piece. This fine, lineless theatre is necessarily episodic, and I spent too much time trying to spot its purpose …before realising that it is simply a fabulous vehicle for having fun and admiring four excellent performers.
Amalia Vitale is simply stunning at Chaplin. Her research into every nuance of the man is impeccable. I began to ‘believe’ in the first five minutes and held conversations on the train home as if I had indeed been watching the man himself. Her understanding of silent movie business is a joy to watch. The glances, the asides, the double takes, the dismissive looks. Her mannerisms ride high above the regularly copiable Chaplin. We don’t see the walking stick walk until the show is nearly over. She’s exquisite.
Jerone Marsh-Reid also avoids the clichéd Laurel yet captures the make-up of the man with superb subtlety. They both create a spiral staircase from practically nothing and Laurel takes an imaginary elevator ride using just one step and bags of body language.
Nick Haverson has the unenviable task of playing two second bananas. He dons a stripy blazer and Dr Who-length trousers as the cigar-chewing Fred Karno, frustratingly on the losing end of any deal with his rising stars. But then, before our very eyes, he stuffs a cushion up his shirt, sticks out his jaw, clenches his biceps and transforms himself into Laurel’s new-found side kick. The Laurel and Hardy slap stick routines, live on stage, far transcend the recent bio-pic; good though that was.
Sara Alexander constantly accompanies the show with Zoe Rahman’s playful piano score, and occasionally pops up on stage as Charlie’s mum.
The fifth element of the show is the front row.
I’ve seen in street theatre just how persuasive gesture can be. How can a shy audience member refuse to go up on stage if they’re not actually asked? Vitale uses only inference to reel in a lady in row A and get her to shadow Chaplin’s routine. When a caption goes up asking if there is a pianist in the house (because Sara Alexander is otherwise engaged), of course no one volunteers. But the cast simply pick on somebody, who discovers they can actually play.
This show is really clever. It’s a lovely homage to three silent stars. Because it’s invented, it feels brand new…and it’s utterly adorable.