CHARLIE AND STAN at Wilton’s Music Hall
“A striking insight into over-familiar figures”
‘Told by an Idiot’ have taken two of the most iconic, unusual and influential figures in show business and have shone a refracted light on them with such cock-eyed and fascinating focus that we see them both fresh and familiar. Fact gives way to fantasy, yet the truth of their characters magically shines through. The show, “Charlie and Stan”, ran in 2020, followed by a regional tour in 2021; and it is fitting that it now comes to Wilton’s Music Hall – a venue perfectly suited in which to tell the tale of Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. They both had similar theatrical origins – the sketch and the pantomime of the music hall. They were contemporaries, and they both had parental disasters (which is explored in the show to great effect too). Both men made their first American tour with Fred Karno’s Company of Clowns, which is where we find them here, setting sail for New York at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.
As part of the London International Mime Festival, we expect a show with little or no dialogue; but we don’t expect such succinct and engaging storytelling. A mix of laughter and poignancy that is quite mesmerising. Framed in a series of vignettes, the narrative flashes forwards and backwards, and into dreams and nightmares. Stan and Charlie’s relationship was a troubled one – the real facts are cast overboard pretty early on, and we are left with the emotive essence, and eighty minutes of slapstick, acrobatics, dance, circus, music, mime. And plenty of gags.
The company comprises just four actors that often appear to be much more in number as they strut, disappear, reappear and morph onstage with an elastic theatricality. Danielle Bird captures Chaplin’s mannerisms with uncanny accuracy while making the acrobatic physicality feel second nature. There is a touch of Aurelia Thiérree about her performance – a fitting and perhaps unwitting similarity to Chaplin’s granddaughter; yet Bird’s natural stage presence, charisma and fluid performance certainly meets the standards set by the great family. Jerome Marsh-Reid, as Laurel, has perfected the raised eyebrows and affected nods and replicates, if not outshines, the flexibility and acrobatic skills needed for the role. We first see Nick Haverson as the cigar-chewing impresario Fred Karno, before he miraculously morphs into Charlie’s drunken and abusive dad; and later – Ollie Hardy. Complementing the trio is Sara Alexander, accompanying the action on piano. Seemingly improvised, it is as note perfect as can be. With not a sheet of manuscript of Zoe Rahman’s silent movie-esque score in sight, her playing is linked, by invisible strings, to every step and gesture the actors make. Even when Alexander moves away from the piano onto the stage (at one point as Stan’s mum), the musicality silently follows her with every movement.
It is quite a stunning masterclass in physical theatre, but the technique in no way detracts from the sheer entertainment value. Ioana Curelea’s ramshackle set matches the disorderly genius of the piece, and of the characters’ minds. Yes – the show is outlandish and chronologically haphazard, but the camouflaged precision and subtlety bring an emotive power that belies the comedy. It is out of the ordinary. And extraordinary. A striking insight into over-familiar figures.
The rivalry and camaraderie of Chaplin and Laurel is beautifully portrayed. Much is made of Stan being Charlie’s understudy on that first American tour. Charlie also dreams of throwing Stan overboard the ship. One of the most touching and affecting moments is brought to life in a sketch in which Stan visits Charlie, years later, at his Hollywood mansion. In Stan’s head they perform a tap dance together in perfect unison. In reality, though, Charlie is not at home and Marsh-Reid’s forlorn Stan realises his fruitless journey with sad eyes. Undoubtedly a reference to the fact that – bizarrely – Chaplin makes no mention of Laurel at all in his autobiography.
It is not easy to make slapstick and pathos walk so stylishly hand in hand. But ‘Told by an Idiot’ make it look so effortless; and as familiarly iconic and nostalgic as Charlie Chaplin’s stick and frogleg walk. “Charlie and Stan” is unique, original but instantly recognisable. A far-fetched fantasy that seduces reality. And ultimately seduces the audience.
Reviewed on 31st January 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed at this venue: