Inspired by the transatlantic journey that Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel shared as members of a music hall troupe before either found fame in the movies, Charlie & Stan is not only a telling of a little known moment in entertainment history, but a celebration of the invention and charm that made both figures so well loved. In fact, like many great silent comedies, while the story is engaging – and occasionally moving – in its own right, it serves primarily as a structure upon which to hang skits, sketches and slapstick.
The show is brilliant at mixing influences from silent comedies and music hall with its own ingenious twists. A live pianist (Sara Alexander), intertitles, pantomime gestures, and comedy props are used in ways that are at one moment charmingly familiar, at another delightfully surprising. Alexander in particular is electric – whether sat at the piano or venturing out beyond it she turns a traditionally almost invisible role into a star turn. Charlie & Stan is often at its best when using these influences to be consciously metatheatrical. There are numerous moments where the show seamlessly changes its own narrative through reference to movie making; from Alexander cutting off strips of celluloid to change what happened in the previous scene, to Danielle Bird as Chaplin pausing a chase to direct its conclusion.
These moments cut to the core of what Charlie & Stan is doing. In the programme, writer and director Paul Hunter describes wanting the show to be ‘a comically unreliable tribute… to value fiction over fact, fantasy over reality’. This conscious false-ness is woven not only through the plot of the play, which uses known facts and events as jumping off points to have fun with, but also its style. Throughout, moments of theatrical magic are immediately undercut by revealing their artifice – an electric candle clicked on openly after previous ones were ‘lit’ with a match, a performer bringing out from behind their back a fish they just ‘threw’ to another performer. This even seems to reach outside of the stage – the programme contains a slip informing us that Reggie the dog will not be appearing tonight due to bad behaviour, and instead his understudy, a puppet, will replace him. I may of course be mistaken, but I doubt Reggie ever actually appears onstage. And central to this sense of uncertainty, the blending of fact and fiction, are the performances of Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan Laurel and Danielle Bird as Charlie Chaplin. They create kaleidoscopic versions of the comedy giants – simultaneously encapsulating the quirks and traits that make their most famous performances so recognisable, and performers still finding their way to these iconic characters.
As someone with the occasional queasy hang-up about biopics and hidden histories (how do we know what happened? How would these people feel about the way they were portrayed?), Told by an Idiot’s approach here seems to find a certain honesty in its ridiculousness. We know that Chaplin was not really The Tramp, and Laurel not really the hapless, childlike figure from his films with Oliver Hardy, so by mixing these famous performances with the performers’ real lives. Marsh-Reid and Bird’s performances create spaces of possibility for the pair, without asserting claims about them; slapstick fights and surreally murderous dreams can nod to a possible falling out, without speculating on its causes.
Said murderous dream contains perhaps the best moment of both self- awareness and audience participation in the show – as Chaplin bribes Alexander’s pianist to help dispose of a body, a replacement musician must be found from the audience to accompany the scene. The moment hits the perfect note, balancing the inherent and hilarious awkwardness of the situation with making sure the audience member was at ease.
Charlie & Stan is altogether a delight, layering thoughtful details and moments over each other to create a fittingly hilarious tribute to two great comedians.
Charlie & Stan runs at Theatre Royal Bath until 24th July, then tours the UK until 9th October. More info here.