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.

Review: MAME

IN BRIEF Tracie Bennett’s star wattage lights up this shimmering revival of Jerry Herman’s feel-good Broadway hit

We all love a survivor.

Unseen in the UK since its 1969 London debut (when it ran at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for almost 500 performances), Nick Winston’s stripped-down production works well because it understands that Mame is the show and with the casting of Bennett, the show is secure. The show’s intimacy of scale has not limited its ambition- or indeed, its success.

The show is set in New York in 1928. When ten- year old Patrick arrives at the door of his only living relative, it’s is up to high-living auntie Mame to take the boy in and teach him about life -and what a job she does! Together, they weather the depression, Wall Street Crash, stuffed-shirts and bourgeois bores, skilfully side-stepping humdrum reality whenever possible. Mame gaily makes her own authentic way through good times and bad, hard times and good, all with her indomitable spirit untarnished. Mame is a gold-plated survivor.

Bennett concocts her Mame with all the skill of a mixologist. Two parts heart, two parts optimism, one part zany, with a twist of Tallalulah Bankhead in the vocal delivery. It’s deliciously intoxicating. Coupled with a five-star voice with power and sophistication, it’s an unbeatable combination and she justified her standing ovation from the audience I was with.

Lochlan White as younger Patrick authentically expresses his sweet innocence coupled with a playfulness which enhances the chemistry between him and Mame. He more than holds his own with his number “My Best Girl”.

Harriet Thorpe gives a delightfully overblown Vera an appealing mix of Martini- haze and sharp- tongued sass, to the audience’s pleasure.

The cast of 20 all give value, and the big chorus numbers are of a size which still satisfies.

Winston’s acute direction and choreography allows numbers like Open a New Window, to both tell a story and add also atmosphere, value and interest to the extended number. He wisely reins back on numbers like Bosom Buddies, that nicely affectionate bitch- fest where the words do the work, which raises just the right laughs.

The cleverly minimalistic set relies on a few well selected pieces to create an atmosphere and that is all that is needed. Costumes again are good, with the spending wisely done where it is best seen- most particularly in Mame’s sparkling and stylish wardrobe changes, which are a delight.

Any musical with Alex Parker as MD is a winner from the start, and as usual he works wonders with a small band to Jason Carr’s orchestrations. (Just a side note here, I was very disappointed to see that the musicians received no credit in the Royal & Derngate programme- credit where its due, folks, please!).

This two- week extension to the show ‘s original run palpably misses Tim Flavin’s playing of Beauregard; but in truth this is Bennett’s show from start to finish and she gives audiences just what they want.

MAME received the warmest reception from the Northampton audience (on Saturday 11th January), proving that not only do we all love a survivor, but that also we all love a good story with great music done with heart and flair. Producer Katy Lipson has scored another direct hit with a Broadway classic, proving yet again that she is a formidable force for the future of musicals both old and new.

MAME next plays Salisbury Playhouse from 20-25 January. For information and tickets click here


IN BRIEF Haunting, raw drama of family estrangement and male communication lingers in the mind

Bijan Sheibani’s intense play about male relationships focuses on two brothers- one given up for adoption as a child, the other kept, when they meet again in adulthood. Set on a blank revolving blue disc of a stage, this 70-minute show strips the brothers’ encounters down, examining the fractured connections that still haunt them both and the changes they have to make to go on with their lives.

Between the scenes, the two circle and glower at each other, nicely suggesting underlying tensions and unexpressed emotions.

The audience starts out with very little information and quite gradually we build up certain impressions, rather like Tom building up his own half-forgotten picture of the family that left him behind.

The brothers’ reunion upsets a fragile status quo. Things that have long been buried are dug up again, again dealing with all the repressed guilt, powerlessness and anger about things not of their making.

Tom, the adopted brother is weighted with large and small questions, desperate to reclaim his family ties and make sense of it all, but his drive to move things on quickly grates with quieter, more moderate Sam, who favours a slower approach, not just for the sake of his parents.

There is a palpable desire for physical and mental connection, yet the closest they come to sustained physical contact is when they fight at Sam’s wedding. This is complex, messy stuff focusing on male role models and the pressure from both within and without about how men act and react.

Writer/Director Sheibani gives his work intrigue, accessibility and humanity. Both of these characters are hurting, but their resolutions seem very distant, and certainly not hinted at by the conclusion of this play.

Scott Karim carefully portrays Tom as driven, unsettled, positively glowing with repressed rage and resentment.

Irfan Shamji plays Sam as more cautious, slower, on the defensive. Both actors give committed and intense performances that do the material justice. Towards the end of the play, Tom’s quiet line resonated with me on the way home. “I just thought I’d found you…but I hadn’t”.

THE ARRIVAL plays The Bush Theatre until January 18th. Details and tickets here

An Appreciation: CIRCUS 1903

Theatre requires tension. And you certainly get your fair share of tension in Circus 1903, although not of the usual theatrical kind. An at first quaint-seeming idea reveals itself to be a circus more about skill than razzle-dazzle in the Barnum and Bailey mould, and is all the better for it. Made more relatable, this is a true family show in which the kids are fully included.

The collection of acts are well curated. Acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, aerial artists are all well-represented and interspersed with turns by the ringmaster who does several bits with the children in the audience, who are all treated with fun and respect and heart. The much-anticipated section featuring the elephants (or puppets thereof) brings much ooh-ing from the youngsters, but I dare anyone of any age to look at them without being swept along by the grace and power of their skilfully-observed movements. The kids (of all ages) were enchanted.

Comedy, magic, grace and agility were all spotted cannily and given their chance to dazzle the almost full-house at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The whole thing runs just under two hours including an interval, with the acts being not so overlong as to outstay their welcome. It is interesting to look at, the music is suitably melodramatic and potent, and the sense of audience involvement is genuine. Although I haven’t been to a circus in over forty years, this show revived a child-like wonder at the skill and daring of these unique people who have honed their life’s work into a four-minute act. Rather like the long-lost days of variety, it felt good to experience those specialists who had all but disappeared, in a theatrical environment that didn’t overwhelm them as individuals.

If you want to remember the feeling of being a kid, no matter what your current age, get yourself along to the Royal Festival Hall by Sunday 5th January. Or have to wait for their undoubted return next Christmas!

CIRCUS 1903 runs at the Royal Festival Hall until Sunday 5th January. Information and tickets here

Theatre FootNotes for December 2019 – a summary of other theatre events in my diary

THE WIND OF HEAVEN by Emlyn Wiliams – Finborough Theatre.

You can always rely on the tiny Finborough Theatre to bring out an unusual play for its Christmas slot. Although you can see why they were drawn to this interesting exploration of the search for faith by key 20th-century writer Emlyn Williams, sadly the play shows its age and struggles to engage.

Set in 1856, the small Welsh village of Blestin has turned away from God since a disaster swept away all its young people 11 years earlier. Dilys Parry, widowed recently by the Crimean War is visited by a money-minded circus owner and his assistant who have heard rumours of a “little man” who produces “music in the air”. The only youngster in the village, the son of Parry’s maid, is identified. He has something about him which suggests he is special, and the villagers come to believe him to be a spiritual figure, apparently confirmed when he pushes back the wave of cholera which imperils the village.

It’s a complex story, and I feel sure that written at the end of World War Two as it was, there was a lot more need in audiences for hope and a general willingness to embrace the spiritual elements of this story, with so many people having experienced direct loss in tragic circumstances who may have read its messages as cathartic. However now, 75 years later, in our modern, less religious world, its power is greatly diminished. Your reception of the piece will also depend upon your own belief and faith, if you have any. Personally I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief, but I still enjoyed the ideas and the poetry of Williams writing.

The production uses sound and lighting to good effect but despite the best efforts of the cast, who all work hard and with the utmost conviction,  the show remains earthbound.

MARTHA, JOSIE AND THE CHINESE ELVIS by Charlotte Jones – Park Theatre (Park 90).

Josie’s tired. Tired of the Bolton winter. Tired of looking after daydreaming daughter Brenda-Marie. Tired of working as a dominatrix to make ends meet. Too tired to celebrate turning forty. But her favourite client Lionel insists on a birthday party and, knowing Josie’s a huge Elvis fan, invites a very special guest. Just as hips start swinging, somebody no-one expected arrives and skeletons come tumbling out of the closet…

Written in 1999, Charlotte Jones’ play has not been seen in London before. This could be because it’s rather an unwieldy piece, very much a game of two very different halves. The first act is short but drags towards its end – superficially saucy, with flimsy characters, faux naughtiness and a soap-y first act curtain: but then the longer second act asks us to take it much more seriously- which is difficult. What also surprised me is that the play feels extremely dated, far more so than its twenty years.

It was also regrettable that the free cast sheet handed out to audiences did not include any cast or technical biographies, which could (to my mind) have been easily accommodated on the reverse of the single sheet.

THE TYLER SISTERS by Alexandra Wood – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Spanning several decades in the lives of three sisters, this looks like a very ambitious play which presents about 30 short snapshot- scenes of significant years in the three siblings’ lives from teenagers to retirement. The audience sees how their characters and situations change across the years through the oft-encountered lifetime issues- parenthood, children, divorce, sexuality, middle age, loss, conflict and retirement amongst others.

It’s an interesting idea but sadly, with the time that is spent establishing each new situation and then the reasons for the changes, there is rarely much time left to delve into the actual characters, so for all its two-hour length it (ironically) feels sketchy. In its ambitious breadth it sacrifices depth. The actors all do what they can, giving interesting performances- they work hard throughout the show and they are rarely offstage; however as a non-sibling myself (if that has any bearing upon my view) I felt this show difficult to engage with, or to care about these three people.

ESCAPE FROM PLANET TRASH by Ginger Johnson – The Pleasance

An adult queer/drag panto. It did what you would expect it to do, and the audience had fun. David Cumming (from SpitLip) and Lavinia CoOp (ex-Bloolips) were featured less frequently than I personally would have liked, these two performers being the reason for my visit to the show.