WRITTEN and directed by founder and artistic director of the award-winning ‘Told by an Idiot’ company, Paul Hunter, it should come as no surprise that Charlie and Stan is a whacky night’s theatre to be relished.
Hunter has based his story about Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Laurel on a factual but little known 1910 transatlantic crossing that the two embarked on as part of the Frank Karno music hall troupe. The fact that the two met on the ship is not just a piece of showbusiness history but also the stuff of legend. We are offered the notion from the outset to ponder what if it had been ‘Charlie and Stan’ instead of ‘Stan and Olly’?
The show merges slapstick and mime with music hall and silent movie comedy and pathos. It is openly more fiction than fact, but offers some really clever and moving character background stuff, such as Chaplin’s escape from poverty and brutal drunken father and mentally unstable Mother.
Sara Alexander is a powerhouse as the live pianist performing Zoe Rahman’s brilliantly evocative score. Not for her a background shrinking violet behind the keyboard, but a multi-tasking performer who constantly engages with the other players via a series of visual tricks. These involve birds and rodents amongst other props – and not forgetting Scraps the dog! Alexander even brings a touch of pantomime to the proceedings by enticing an audience member up on stage to do a two-finger underscore whilst she helps Charlie throw a body overboard.
Danielle Bird doesn’t miss a trick in portraying the silent movies best-loved tramp, Charlie Chaplin. In fact, she keeps the best ’til last when she dons the ‘tash, swings the cane and walks the walk to big ‘ahs’ all round from the audience. Bird offers us her heart and we reciprocate.
Jerome Marsh-Reid complements Bird with an equally physical performance as Stan Laurel – whilst not as slight of build as Bird, he more than makes up for that with facial expression capturing that legendary look of stupid innocence.
The multi-talented Nick Haverson is Machiavellian Frank Karno, the sometime master of ceremonies, sometime puppeteer pulling Charlie and Stan’s strings as he counts the money. No wonder the troops in World War One trenches were often referred to as Frank Karno’s army. Haverson is a mean drummer too, kicking us off with a quite awesome solo.
Harris Cain and Frances Knox may be the understudies but they also pop up as additional characters throughout adding a healthy sprinkling of tinsel to an already oft-magical production.
Ioana Curelea has created a highly inventive set, which at its core is an ocean going liner but constantly offers up little surprises to make us use our imagination and switch mentally between stage and screen.
Whilst not without flaws and some scenes which may be overegged and even unnecessary, ‘Charlie & Stan’ is at its core a visual delight with a company boarding on triumph. I’m sure as it gets ‘tweaked’ on tour that by the time it reaches the West End and Broadway it will be seamless and even achieve classic status as the ultimate homage to those two giants, Charlie and Stan.
Charlie and Stan is at Malvern Theatres until Monday. Click here for times, tickets and more information.
Review by Euan Rose.
Euan Rose Reviews.