Review: Chaplin and Laurel provide welcome comic relief on Northampton stage

Lily Canter reviews The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

By Lily Canter
Monday, 16th March 2020, 9:44 am
The show blends slapstick, physical theatre and music
The show blends slapstick, physical theatre and music

With coronavirus panic spilling into every conversation there perhaps has been no better time to enjoy a dialogue-free production of light entertainment.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a slapstick foray into the brief - and largely unknown - relationship between two of the 20th century's greatest comedians.

In 1910 the duo set sail for New York as part of Fred Karno's music hall troupe, sharing a cabin onboard. On arrival in North America they spent two years on tour together, with Stan as Charlie's understudy.

The Told by an Idiot production centres on their sea voyage, proudly creating a "true fantasy" which uncovers a hidden chapter of comedy history relishing in "fiction over fact".

What unfolds is an affectionate nod to the silent movie era which made both these men international stars.

More a series of a sketches than a coherent narrative, the warm and witty play is awash with sight gags, breaches of the fourth wall and plenty of whacks around the head.

Relying on pratfalls and props, the humour is innocently puerile with the silent actors over-exaggerating every swagger, eye-pop and grimace.

Holding everything together is the formidable Sara Alexander, an astonishingly accomplished actor and pianist who underscores each scene whilst often simultaneously stealing it.

Pocket-sized Amalia Vitale perfectly captures the cheeky side of Chaplin whilst also portraying his more manipulative side - all without words.

Meanwhile Jerone Marsh-Reid has the naïve mannerisms of doting Stan down to a tee, and is the one character who manages to invoke pathos on the madcap adventure.

Playing an array of characters/caricatures is Nick Haverson, who is at his comedic best as Charlie's drunken dad or when inhibiting the larger than life cigar-chomping Fred Karno.

The four performers show an astonishing wealth of talent, dexterity and comic timing in this whirlwind production, never missing a beat. And it is extremely refreshing to enjoy 90 minutes of visual entertainment with the only sound coming via music or song, rather than the spoken word.

There is also plenty of fun, rather than awkward, audience participation which adds to the carnival atmosphere.

But whether the jokes make you laugh or shrug will all depend on your tolerance for continual physical mishap.

The flash forwards and back are also difficult to follow and make for a confusing timeline and somewhat incoherent plot. The ending is also extremely disappointing, going out on a whimper rather than exploding with a song and a dance.

But if you can put that aside and simply go along for the ride, then this is a welcome piece of light relief.

* The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, is playing at Royal and Derngate until Saturday March 21. Visit royalandderngate.co.uk to book.