Written and Directed by Paul Hunter
A Told by an Idiot and Theatre Royal Plymouth production
Told by an Idiot celebrate the golden age of silent cinema so unsurprisingly it is punctuated by the sounds of a drum kit, a piano, a hotel service bell and some hip hop clog dancing! Writer and Director Paul Hunter pinpoints an actual moment in history when Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel board a ship to America. It’s 1910 and as part of the slapstick troupe Fred Karno’s Army, the two men are on their way to become an worldwide cinema icon and one half of the most famous and beloved comedy duo ever. This is no satisfyingly chronological comedic biography but instead Hunter intermingles fragments both real and imagined to pay a kaleidoscopic homage to two comedy greats.
The multidimensional aspect of the stage evoke the SS Cairnrona both above and below decks, while also functioning as a hotel, a Victorian madhouse and a cinema stage. Designer Ioana Curelea brings an energy and flamboyance to the design that strongly echoes Kneehigh Theatre productions. She gives the performers a playground to showcase their very physical portrayals of Chaplin and duo Laurel and Hardy that is delightful and highly effective.
The eloquence of the silent performances is how they zero in on the story telling in the facial expressions and the minute movements of the body. In this Amalia Vitale excels with a performance that is off the scale in whimical charm and is razor sharp in its delicate and precise interpretation of Chaplin. She combines slapstick comedy with balletic grace while also interacting with the audience with flair and confidence. Nick Haverson takes on multiple roles including the cigar chomping impresario Fred Karno and with the aid of a cushion and a duct tape moustache he uncannily morphs into Oliver Hardy. His performances coupled with his percussion skills add richness and depth to this madcap trip through the decades. Sara Alexander does a great job of keeping the story moving musically while her facial expressions tell so much of the narrative. Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan Laurel is full of gawky charm and has a certain ingénue quality. There is a lot to enjoy in his performance yet it feels like the essence of Laurel is rarely seen. This is a theatre company that declares itself disinterested in creating reality and is more engaged in provoking and entertaining while actively engaging the audience. Yet somehow this jars slightly with this performance alongside such uncanny personifications of Chaplin and Hardy.
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a really pleasurable theatrical experience and the use of audience members onstage is handled deftly. The fragmented moments capture births, deaths, success and disappointment and a poignant glimpse into a golden age that set the benchmark in slapstick comedy and absurdism in theatre and film. There are scenes that could be briefer without losing impact, and for some the random nature of these snapshots of the two men may be confusing, however overall this is a real joy to watch.