WHY this wonderful 90 minutes of fantastically inventive silent comedy is not playing to full houses renders your reviewer speechless.
Let this fool for love tell you in the politest terms, you would be an idiot to miss Told By An Idiot’s utterly charming “comically unreliable tribute” to England’s golden comedy age of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
Storytelling physical theatre without dialogue but with the familiar tropes of the silent silver screen – musical accompaniment and scene-setting “intertitles” on screen – is enacted by a cast of four with all the mannerisms and ticks of bygone days under the whimsical direction of writer/storyboarder Paul Hunter.
Together in constant motion and sometimes commotion, they tell the “trueish” story of “the greatest double act that nearly was”…and now is, thanks to Hunter’s romantic imagination and deconstructionist zeal.
What is true is that the sapling comedic talents of the then-unknown Charlie Chaplin (Danielle Bird) and Stanley Jefferson (later Laurel, Jerone Marsh-Reid) did share a cabin on board the SS Cairnrona to New York in 1910 as part of impresario Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Stan would then understudy Charlie for more than 18 months around America.
From such source material Hunter magically spins the “true fantasy” of Chaplin & Laurel, “intrigued to uncover a hidden and poignant chapter of comedic history”, in keeping with the London company’s mission to “inhabit the space between laughter and pain”.
Yes, laughter and pain both feature here. So much laughter in the nascent comedic talent of Charlie and Stan, but the hints of jealousy of the singular Chaplin towards the fledgling team player Laurel. Then the pain of Charlie’s childhood, with a drunken father (Nick Haverson) and a mother (Sara Alexander) taken away in a straitjacket, and later a veteran Stan arriving just too late for a reunion with Chaplin, who he had so admired for so many years (whereas Chaplin never mentioned him in his autobiography).
Playing “fast and loose” with the truth also allows Told By An Idiot to play fast and loose with time’s past, present and future, enabling Haverson to switch from drumming and Fred Karno duties to become partner-in-waiting Oliver Hardy, with the aid of padding and a strip of black tape. Likewise, at the finale, Chaplin’s trademark Little Tramp takes his impish first steps to Hollywood stardom.
Ioana Curelea’s delightful set evokes on-deck and below-deck on the SS Cairnrona, where Charlie and Stan spar with slapstick timing and pratfalls on their cabin beds: the double act come to life.
Music is vital too, whether in Chaplin’s father’s boozed-up bar song, Charlie playing his signature tune Smile, or Alexander exuberantly performing Zoe Rahman’s piano score in the traditional silent movie style.
Meanwhile, audience members from the stalls are picked to play their part, coerced by cheeky Chaplin, adding to the fun of such an enchanting homage: a celebration of comedy’s timeless ability to highlight the ridiculous, the absurd, our human foibles, as we laugh at ourselves through agents Chaplin and Laurel.
In his programme notes, Hunter talks of being “determined to value fiction over fact, fantasy over reality, and shine a very unusual light on a pair of show business legends”. Yet in doing so, a greater truth emerges. As told by Told By An Idiot, life’s tale is not mere sound and fury signifying nothing; it as much a laughing matter as no laughing matter, especially when these four players strut their 90 minutes upon the stage.
All four are a joy to behold, Haverson and Alexander playing anything but second fiddle as they complement the uncanny physicality and balletic grace of Bird’s Chaplin and Marsh-Reid’s gentle, nice mess of a mishap-prone Laurel.
Both funny and moving, thumbs-up all round.
Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk