In 1910 a young Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail from England to tour North America with Fred Karno’s music hall troupe.
This part of Told by An Idiot’s story is true – strange only because of the stars these young men would later become. Chaplin and his screen persona, ‘The Tramp’ is still considered one of the most important figures in film history, while Laurel went on to become one half of the greatest comedy duo of all time, alongside Oliver Hardy.
We know little about what happened during the two years Chaplin and Laurel toured together. But as Artistic Director, Paul Hunter says of the show: ‘We were determined to value fiction over fact, fantasy over reality, and shine a very unusual light on a pair of show business legends’.
The production is more reminiscent of Chaplin than Laurel and Hardy, in so far as it is tells its story in the style of a silent movie – with mime, physical comedy, screen captions and live piano music, played brilliantly by Sara Alexander who also takes on the role of Chaplin’s troubled mother, Hannah. Occasionally the mime is broken by a song, including Chaplin’s famous, Smile. But for the most part, think of this as recreating a silent movie on stage.
Through a series of slapstick scenes, we get a glimpse of Chaplin’s impoverished Victorian background, with a drunken father and a mother restrained in a straitjacket. Amalia Vitale is convincing as Chaplin, mastering the comic genius’ trademark walk and mischievous sense of fun. Her character charms the audience and at one point literally reels them in for a surreal on-stage swim.
Vitale’s energetic performance is centre stage throughout, while the three other cast members play a variety of different roles. This means that Jerone Marsh-Reid, who we also see as a bell boy, a doctor and a landlord, doesn’t get as much of the limelight playing Stan Laurel. While Chaplin has his distinctive walk and cane, there is little here of Laurel’s famous puzzled head-scratching. His comedy partner, Oliver Hardy makes a brief appearance, with actor Nick Haverson donning a small moustache and stuffing a cushion up his top to become the larger than life star. However, the audience is left to make any emotional connection from their own recollections of the duo. That said, quick-footed Marsh-Reid makes a great sparring partner for Vitale with cartoon-style capers aplenty. He also shines during the dance scenes when his break-dancing background is used to dazzling effect.
Ioana Curelea’s multi-layered set, with steps and a fireman’s pole, creates a variety of spaces for innovative physical comedy within a relatively small space. For one hour 40 minutes the cast play on the set to create physical gag after physical gag. By the end we still don’t know any more of the facts of what happened on that transatlantic journey. But we get a sense of who these comedy giants were through their slapstick, escapist humour, and why their genius continues to inspire performers today.★ ★ ★
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is at Home, Manchester from 4 to 8 February 2020.