There are few more iconic or quintessential show business stars than Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. The latest show from the inimitably quirky company Told by an Idiot and Theatre Royal Plymouth attempts to pay homage to the classic entertainers’ joyous work with a warm, though overstuffed, comic tale about their lives.
To tell it, the cast scampers all over Ioana Curelea’s Kneehigh-inflected set consisting of scaffolding, stairs, a drum set and a fireman’s pole. The dynamic production design offers abundant opportunities for the cast to launch and gambol themselves across the stage, while old movie-style projected dates and subtitles help to provide some guiding sense of plot and reality.
Director and writer Paul Hunter loosely imagines the formation of Chaplin and Laurel’s friendship from their upbringing to their venture to launch their careers in New York. These figures are vibrantly inhabited by Amalia Vitale and Jerone Marsh-Reid, especially Vitale’s charismatic combination of wittily dexterous expressivity and nimble agility. The whole cast show themselves to be incredibly talented and versatile performers, each layering a different comic pitch, such as Nick Haverson’s extensive multi-roling as blundering old men or Sara Alexander’s remarkable balance of piano accompaniments and facial reactions.
For all its acrobatic and musical flair, however, the storytelling is often arduously clunky. There is no clear chronological order as coherent narrative thrust is surrendered to a rather messy series of vignettes. While Chaplin found the humour in everyday banality, the production exhausts every situational possibility for incorporating slapstick, demanding the perseverance of our silliest sense of humour. With the show preferring to explore every nook and cranny of the comic potential of a suitcase, you feel it squanders its opportunity to revel in the nostalgia of its titular characters’ backstories.
To ensure the audience isn’t left to passively reminisce about this past era, the show frequently engages with them directly. Although the uncomfortably sporadic raising of the house lights seems essentially to wake the audience up from the slow pace, it allows for some of the show’s best interactions. Alexander summons a pianist from the audience while she assists with the action, before Vitale fishes another lady onto the stage to teach her how to mime swimming. These moments also seem to indicate the indelible legacy of Chaplin and Laurel with which we are still engaged today.
Although the show is ultimately not as funny as it wants to be and tries a little too hard, it’s a pleasant revisiting of these entertainment legends which recaptures some of their magic and manufactures some of its own.
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel played at HOME Manchester until 8 February. For more information, visit the HOME Manchester website.