TWO of England’s greatest comics, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, born a year apart, boarded the same steamer, the converted cattle ship SS Cairnrona, to make a new life across the pond. Both were part of the travelling vaudeville company, Fred Karno’s Army. Laurel (then known as Stanley Jefferson), was Chaplin’s understudy.
Charlie and Stan, a new play by Paul Hunter, takes the long days and nights of the crossing as its framework, exploring imaginary conversations between the two men, as well as a meeting in their final years. Written for Told by an Idiot and Bath Theatre Royal, it has opened in Bath before a West End run.
It interweaves dream sequences of a possible partnership between the two with scenes from Chaplin’s rackety childhood, with his mad mother and drunken father, and Laurel’s meeting with his longtime comedy partner Oliver Hardy.
Told by an Idiot was formed in 1995 for the Edinburgh Fringe and specialises in telling the unexpected stories that surround the familiar. Here, the company’s artistic director Hunter toys with the idea of “the greatest comedy duo that never was.” The whole thing is done wordlessly in time-honoured slapstick style, to the accompaniment of a piano and percussion.
Played on a multi-level nautical set designed by Ioana Curelea, with Zoe Rahman’s music brilliantly delivered by Sara Alexander at the piano – and occasionally Nick Haverson on the drums – this is all about timing. Danielle Bird’s Charlie is a revelation, capturing the pathos, the bombast and the fun as Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Stan hones his fall-guy persona for a famous future. Both perform with astonishing physical skills.
This is a show for lovers of slapstick, for students of comedy and fans of the silent movie. It’s also for anyone who loves a stunningly clever, totally entertaining evening of live theatre, with a soupcon of audience participation that, oddly, reminded me of Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, if less odoriferous.
Charlie and Stan is at Bath Theatre Royal until 24th July, before it heads off to wow national audiences.