What is comedy? Many actors have tried to give a suitably succinct description. For Charlie Chaplin, ‘Life is a tragedy when seen in close up but a comedy in long-shot.’ Stan Laurel chose to be less analytical: ‘What is comedy? I don’t know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that’s all I know.’
Two different men, with very different approaches to their craft. It’s well known that Chaplin and Laurel were once friends, starting their careers in the years before WW1 with ‘king of variety’ Fred Karno. The pair toured North America with the Karno troupe in 1910, and for a time shared lodgings in New York. However, any sort of affection that existed between them was extinguished by Chaplin’s ambition: his jealousy and intolerance of rivals was legendary. Chaplin doesn’t even mention Laurel in his autobiography. Ever the gentlemen, Laurel never had a bad word to say about his former colleague, going so far as to say Chaplin ‘was, is and will always be the greatest comedian in the world.’
Charlie and Stan, a physical comedy from the ever-ingenious company Told by an Idiot (who have been touring internationally for 27 years), takes its cue from the provident, steamer ship voyage made by Chaplin and Laurel during the Karno years. Little is known about what actually took place, so to take Charlie and Stan as a literal truth is to miss the point. ‘In some ways we set out to create a comically unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists’, says writer and director Paul Hunter. ‘We were determined to value fiction over fact, fantasy over reality, and shine a very unusual light on a pair of show business legends.’ It’s a celebration of two singular talents, travelling across the Atlantic for a date with destiny.
The fact this production is silent – with an original piano score by Mercury Prize nominated Zoe Rahman – helps the audience get into the right frame of mind. We’ve entered a parallel world where it was Laurel and Chaplin who formed a legendary, much-loved partnership. The show takes place across eleven scenes, zipping back and forth through time. We see one snapshot from a ‘Victorian Childhood’, with Chaplin witnessing his father’s spiral into alcoholism, and the doctors fit his fragile mother with a straitjacket (an amateur psychiatrist might cite this family dysfunction as the spur for Chaplin’s ruthless drive; ‘America, I’m coming to conquer you!’ reads one of the stage captions, projected onto a curtain ).
This being Told by an Idiot, there’s no attempt to disguise the backstage mechanics, and everything happens up front. There’s a drum kit on stage, and Nick Haverson hammers out a driving rhythm during several key moments. Haverson, an excellent clown, plays Fred Karno with a cigar chomping relish. He also plays Oliver Hardy in one scene, and there’s a lot of fun to be had watching him morph into the jolly fat man; putting a cushion under his shirt, rolling up his socks, and sticking a piece of masking tape under his nose. Sara Alexander plays the piano but is occasionally required to take part in the story, persuasively coaxing a piano player from the audience to fill-in.
Jos Houben acts as physical comedy consultant for the show, and does sterling work. It’s worth seeing just for the somersaults. Charlie and Stan could almost be used as a university teaching aid to demonstrate the potential of movement in comedy. And what of the lead actors? As Stan Laurel, the impressively athletic Jerone Marsh-Reid is technically too tall for the part (a minor quibble), though he effortlessly captures Laurel’s air of quiet befuddlement. The charming Danielle Bird is outstanding as Chaplin. Some dyed-in-the-wool critics might splutter at the idea of a woman playing the part but in the age of diverse casting, it’s barely worth mentioning (and if Ian McKellen can play Hamlet at age 84, why can’t a female play Charlie Chaplin?). Bird’s nimble, graceful performance is so convincing it actually feels like the little Tramp has come back from the grave. Why isn’t this girl famous? I’ll be very intrigued to see what she does next.
In 1961, Laurel attempted a reunion with Chaplin, taking the initiative, and travelling to the latter’s California home. The scene is played twice: we watch them reminiscing whilst looking at old photographs of their time with Fred Karno. Then we see the more likely reality: Laurel knocking on the door, waiting for someone to answer, and sadly realising it isn’t going to happen before forlornly walking away. It’s a bittersweet footnote to a wonderful, sometimes joyful piece of theatre. Whilst not specifically aimed at children, it’s easy to imagine a younger audience chuckling with delight at Charlie and Stan.
Highly recommended.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Charlie and Stan is at The Lowry, Salford from 15-18 September 2021 and touring.