The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Written and directed by Paul Hunter, with additional material by the company

Told By An Idiot/Theatre Royal Plymouth production, with Royal and Derngate, Northampton and Unity Theatre, Liverpool

HOME, Manchester

4 February 2019 - 8 February 2019; 100min, no interval

Amalia Vitale as Chaplin, with Jerone Marsh-Reid (left) and Nick Haverson. All pics: Manuel Harlan

Not just for fans of silent comedy and mime – the show was co-commissioned by the London Inter-national Mime Festival – The Strange Tale... is also a charming slice of unusual live action with considerable appeal for the rest of us.

Accessible to D/deaf audiences, the story is told mainly without words, featuring silent film-style captions to add some explanatory detail. For hearing audiences there is a piano score, percussion and songs to help things along, but it’s the visuals that really matter.

It’s an interesting enterprise all round, not least for its subject matter. In 1910, as part of Fred Karno’s music hall crazy gang, young unknowns Chaplin and Laurel shared a cabin on a boat to New York before spending two years touring America with Laurel as Chaplin’s understudy. They then went their separate ways to fame and fortune never to meet again – though a show-stopping clog dance here, credited to "Beverley Hills 1957", momentarily suggests they might have.

It’s just a brief, little-known, moment of showbiz history and Told By An Idiot use it as a starting point for hopping backwards and forwards to various points in the two careers.

There’s a look at the poverty of Chaplin’s Victorian childhood, there’s the first time Laurel meets Hardy, and so on; a series of short stories which, the director admits, prefer fiction over fact – so don’t expect to rely on anything here for accurate insights.

But while it’s all very well playing fast and loose with the facts, the storyline at times is very confusing and thus frustrating, but it’s something you’ve got to accept if you’re going to go along with the show overall.

The multi-level set by Ioana Curelea is a central feature of the action, serving as ship, theatre backstage and so on, and starts out setting the scene as the show opens with a madcap comedy routine when the cast – suitcases and all – board for the passage to New York.

Whatever you might think overall about the 100-minute, interval-less mix, (on the long side for me, as usual less would have been more) the performances are good. Amalia Vitale, as Chaplin, is totally charming and captures the innocent essence of Chaplin’s Tramp with a loveable persona that reaches right out to the back of the theatre. It isn’t an impersonation, more a very personal interpretation. Nick Haverson, transforming from Fred Karno to Oliver Hardy by means of a cushion up his shirt and a bowler hat, is the other stand-out.

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