IN BRIEF Moments of silent-era skill delight in a loosely formatted show
Its rather hard to know what there is left to say about Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, which is perhaps why THE STRANGE TALE… is an entertaining if rather rambling ride.
Using many conventions and devices first seen in silent movies, the majority of the show’s timeframe is 1910, on the ocean crossing from Britain to America, where, as the star (and star understudy) of legendary music hall impresario Fred Karno, Chaplin and Jefferson (later Laurel) made their names in America.
As one would expect with the show being presented as part of the London Mime Festival, the speech is minimal, and title cards (as used in silent films) are cannily employed , not just for speech but also to set time and places. This is most helpful when the play’s timeline rambles around from 1886 to 1973, often at a fast clip.
As writer and director Paul Hunter writes in the programme, “we set out to create a comically unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists”. For an unreliable show, it uses the factual pieces to anchor the flights of fancy, but whether we learn anything new about them is another matter. The show is presented by Told By An Idiot (whose shows are always worth seeing) and Theatre Royal Plymouth.
From start to finish the show weaves a large number of delightful visual gags into the show, building expectation and then subverting it, inspired by the silent movies which made Charlie and then Stan both international sucesses.
Techniques such as title cards, blackouts, use of old sound effects equipment are charming links to the time being explored. This is underscored by the action being accompanied by an old upright piano (the accompaniment of choice for the silent films) to lend it a further authenticity, greatly helped by this one-week run in the faded Victorian glory of Wilton’s Music Hall. The accomplished pianist, Sara Alexander, plays not only the piano but other smaller parts including Chaplin’s mother with warmth and sincerity. It is also interesting to note that they have blended one of Chaplin’s own compositions, the popular “Smile”, into the show’s musical underscore.
It’s Chaplin who has the lion’s share of the stage time. From a backstory of poverty, mental illness and unsteady parentage, one realises that Charlie pretty much was on his own from an early age. The use of stage metaphors applied to his own story is rather charming and engaging. Chaplin is both self-contained and self-obsessed, to the exclusion of all others.
Laurel gets short shrift with no backstory, he simply appears. Always very much second fiddle to Chaplin, his unflagging idolatry comes through from start to finish.
The introduction of Oliver Hardy, undated and sketchy, feels a bit like an afterthought and whilst occasionally amusing, doesn’t really add much. The character never has time to step outside of cliché to make you feel for him.
Nick Haverson makes an agreeably ratty Karno, with his dodgy antics, and also does what little he can with Oliver Hardy’s character as written, and several other characters.
Laurel, as played by Jerone Marsh-Reid is physically expressive more than facially, and conveys his unwavering idolatry of Chaplin consistently.
With small bends in time- the clog dance which becomes a rap dance and back again- it may be that the show tries to connect to younger audiences. However successful that may be, it is true that all the performers work very hard in showcasing the material. There are funny, sad and touching moments dotted throughout the show, and although we leave not knowing much more about the characters, perhaps we have a taste of their personal style of work.
THE STRANGE TALE OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND STAN LAUREL plays Wilton’s Music Hall until Saturday 18th January, details here, and then tours.