The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel: The Unity Theatre, Liverpool
Writer: Paul Hunter
Director: Paul Hunter
Reviewer: Matthew Forrest
Depeche Mode once informed us that we should Enjoy the Silence: sound advice for the modern age and a rather accurate summary of the Told by an Idiot theatre company’s production: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
At the age of 19, Charlie Chaplin was signed up by Fred Karno to join his theatre company. As part of the troupe, Chaplin sets sail for America. Chaplin’s cabin mate for the journey is another young aspiring actor, Stan Laurel. Despite initially not seeing eye-to-eye, the two men bond and when arriving in America go their separate ways. Chaplin would go on to become the biggest film star of the day, whilst Stan Laurel, along with Oliver Hardy, would form arguably the greatest comedy duo the world has ever known.
This production is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, told entirely through mime, with a little help from a few musical hall numbers, a few handy interstitial cue cards, and a wonderful, piano led soundtrack.
With a cast of four, and the occasional more than willing audience member, we have the young Chaplin played by the mesmerising Amalia Vitale. Her turn as Chaplin, complete with his trademark walk, and mannerisms is a master class in mimicry and how to command a stage. Vitale is a revelation as, ‘The Little Tramp’, with no wasted motion or action; for its run time SHE IS Chaplin. This is a star making turn from an actor you’ll be seeing a great deal of in the future.
Equally impressive are her fellow cast members: Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan Laurel is on fine form, nailing his doe-eyed facial expression that was so much part of Laurel’s appeal. He also plays various other characters including a rather put-upon bell boy, and a no-nonsense doctor.
Nick Haverson also plays numerous parts including the larger than life Fred Karno, a boozy incarnation of Chaplin’s dad and rather unexpectedly Oliver Hardy. Both Marsh-Reid and Haverson show how a slight costume alteration, facial expression and posture signals a new character – no words needed, just a fantastic physical presence which all three have by the bucket load.
Making up the quartet is Sara Alexander, who plays Charlie’s mum, Hannah Chaplin whilst doubling up as our pianist. She provides the musical accompaniment for the evening, matching every moment of buffoonery and sadness, from Zoe Rahman’s evocative score, transporting us back to the golden age of silent cinema. Alexander is an exceptional pianist who anchors the production, playing solo for nearly all of the show’s runtime, give or take a couple of scenes. Her playing, along with Rahman’s soundtrack are the show’s heartbeat: there is everything from the Charlie Chaplin composition Smile to a spot of Thunder by East 17. Alexander, like her fellow actors, again tells more of a story with her facial expressions than some actors can with a page of dialogue and she does so from behind a piano.
As you’d expect, the show is heavy on physical comedy. It’s packed full of slapstick, pratfalls, and visual gags that are expertly performed and all choreographed by Jos Houben. The ocean-liner setting lends itself to some fantastic set-pieces, which involve the world’s most unstable looking bunk beds, and a set of golf clubs. In addition there are a few musical hall numbers, as well as numerous dance routines, which pay homage to ones performed in the 1937 film, Way Out West: be it with a little Hip-Hop infusion; Nuna Sandy’s choreography is traditional and innovative, which is in keeping with its period setting, however gives the production a contemporary edge.
Despite Chaplin and Laurel having top billing, this is more Chaplin’s story, with Laurel’s story almost like a subplot. This play runs to a nonlinear narrative, we regularly jump from its 1910 setting to Chaplin’s childhood birth, early musical hall days, and his later years, which never becomes confusing but at times does feel laboured and unnecessary. The play could do with a trim, with some scenes seemingly there for the purpose of a gag rather than being integral to the story.
This is a fun, feel-good show that, regardless of age, will leave you grinning from ear-to-ear, beautifully put together by a team who clearly love their subject matter. I’ll leave the final word of this review to popular beat combo The Tremeloes, who once sang that Silence is Golden; well in The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, it most certainly is.
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is touring nationwide until the end of March 2020.