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Review: The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Unity Theatre ****1/2

February 20, 2020

We all know about Stan and Ollie. But what about Stan and Charlie?

In the early 1900s the two future big screen superstars were both members of the legendary Fred Karno’s troupe of vaudevillians who entertained theatre audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

And for two years, Stan was Charlie’s understudy in the company.

Told by an Idiot has taken a real-life moment in the pair’s life stories – the transatlantic voyage Karno and his ‘Army’ embarked on in 1910, and in which Chaplin and Laurel shared a cabin – and created a fantastical and utterly charming high seas adventure.

Practically wordless, writer/director Paul Hunter's 95-minute story is told beautifully through mime and the pair’s signature slapstick, played out to a live silent movie-style soundtrack composed by Zoe Rahman and played with both a jaunty and delicate touch by Sara Alexander who also doubles as Chaplin’s mother Hannah.

While the imagined voyage is the heart of the action, it’s interwoven with other aspects of the two men’s pasts and futures, the changes in time and place signalled by silent movie titles beamed on to a theatrical red curtain which covers their swinging bunks.

Ioana Curelea’s rickety SS Cairnrona (the ship that carried them to the New World) is a higgledy-piggledy riot of rackety stairs, guard rails, snatches of old planked stage, trap doors and lifebuoys.

Jerone Marsh-Reid (Stan), Amalia Vitale (Charlie) and Nick Haverson (Fred Karno). Photos by Manuel Harlan

 

It’s practically a character in its own right, and it makes a perfect playground for the four-strong cast who clamber and cavort and pratfall under the expert tutelage of physical comedy expert Jos Houben.

Amalia Vitale inhabits Chaplin’s slight silhouette and nails his singular mannerisms with enchanting accuracy, while Jerone Marsh-Reid makes for a suitably gangly, and devoted-but-hapless Arthur Stanley Jefferson.

It’s a bit of a shame though that his narrative arc doesn’t feel quite as well formed as that of the little tramp’s.

Meanwhile Nick Haverson is kept busy with a series of keen cameos including an exasperated Karno, Chaplin’s boozy dad and sniffy butler, and an affectionate rendering of Stan’s future partner Oliver Hardy.

The 95-minutes fly by, driven by a riot of action and not a little audience participation (front row be warned) in what is a sheer delight from start to finish.

 

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