CHARLIE Chaplin and Stan Laurel could have been the greatest comedy double act that nearly was, and now they are in Told By An Idiot’s fantasia Charlie & Stan.
On tour from February 7 to March 4 after playing the 47th London International Mime Festival in a run at Wilton’s Music Hall, writer-director Paul Hunter’s silent comedy visits York Theatre Royal from February 14 to 18 in a poignant celebration of two Englishmen who changed the world of comedy
First told by Told By An Idiot in 2019, then revived by producer David Pugh for social-distanced performances and a run outdoors at Cornwall’s Minack Theatre under pandemic restrictions, Hunter’s “trueish” piece of magical storytelling returns in 2023 with its intertwining of real-life events with a fantastical reimagining of Chaplin and Laurel’s two years spent touring together before either became famous.
“The initial starting point was a friend of the company bringing us the idea of telling the story of the then unknown Charlie and Stan setting sail for New York in 1910 as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe, sharing a cabin and travelling around North America for 18 months with Stan as Charlie’s understudy,” says Paul, whose revival kickstarts Told By An Idiot’s 30th anniversary year.
“Stan got homesick and came home; Charlie received his invitation to go to Hollywood and within five years became one of the most famous faces in the world.”
To make Charlie & Stan, Paul created a detailed storyboard structure and then fleshed out the scenarios with the actors, just as with Chaplin would eschew a script in favour of thinking, “the only thing I want to do is make something in a particular place” and then work from there.
“I knew I didn’t want to have mime or be experimental or avant-garde, but just tell the story without words but with the help of props and a jazz piano score by Zoe Rahman [played live by Sara Alexander] in a very captivating 85 minutes straight through to mirror the length of Chaplin’s films such as The Gold Rush.”
Paul may “play fast and loose with the facts” in his non-verbal, highly physical show but he did investigate into why a partnership failed to materialise. “Chaplin never mentioned Laurel even once in his autobiography, whereas Stan talked about Charlie, about him being our greatest comedian, until his dying day,” he says.
“Maybe this was the greatest double act that never was, but Chaplin was never going to share the spotlight with anyone, after his horrendous childhood. Maybe he was also jealous of Laurel because he was so talented too. Like when Stan had to go out on stage on his own when Karno refused to increase Charlie’s pay – and there was Charlie, sitting watching him from the fourth row!
“Ultimately, Laurel found his soul mate in Oliver Hardy, whereas Chaplin was a complete one-off, not only an extraordinary performer but also there’s an argument to say he was one of the greatest film directors, working in the dark with new skills as filmmaking changed.”
Paul’s show is based on fact, but “we refer to it as a true fantasy, where setting sail for New York leads us into the world of imagination with flash-forwards to Stan bumping into his future comedy partner and Charlie’s Little Tramp character evolving,” he says.
“We made a very conscious decision that all scenes should be completely inventions of our own, rather than taken from any film – and I love how we’ve been able to hoodwink people into thinking they are movie scenes!”
Chaplin was 21, Laurel a little younger, when they headed to America. “It’s a big thing, particularly for our two performers, that we wanted to cast them close to the ages that Charlie and Stan would have been,” says Paul.
“Danielle Bird (Charlie) and Jerone Marsh-Reid (Stan), who did the last tour too, are both in their early 20s. If cinema is a palace of dreams, then theatre is its own world of make-believe, and that’s reflected in the casting.
“When I was absorbed in the world of Chaplin, I was fascinated by his movement: he could have been a ballet dancer. Nijinsky even asked him where he trained as a dancer, but he didn’t, but Charlie had this feminine grace, which opened it up to a woman playing the role.
“At times the audience just see Chaplin and forget Dani is a woman. Every night Chaplin has to get a woman out of the audience to swim – and I think it would be more difficult if a man were playing him. There would be more reluctance to go on stage but they trust a woman and that allows us to go further.”
Likewise, when picking Jerone for Stan, Paul says: “He’s mixed race, from Stafford, and again I thought there’s no point finding someone who can do an impression of Stan Laurel, but they had to capture the spirit.
“He’s being played by an actor who never thought he’d even be seen for the chance to play Stan, but that’s the nature of theatre: a world of imagination, rather than filling in the gaps for the audience, which makes the audience feel smarter – and all our work loves to do that!”
Told By An Idiot in Charlie & Stan, York Theatre Royal, February 14 to 18, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
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