It seems quite remarkable that two of the greatest comedians England has ever produced shared a cabin on a ship before they were famous. Yet it is true that Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel did just that as part of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe as they sailed over the sea to tour America.
One of the reasons they were both successful comedians was that they learnt their trade in the English Music Hall. This was their heritage and where they honed the skills of mime and pantomime that would be invaluable to them as silent movie stars.
Charlie and Stan is a silent movie as a play. There is no dialogue, and the action is performed as if it were an old Charlie Chaplin film full of slapstick with the odd bit of pathos.
Like every silent film we had musical accompaniment. This was performed by the marvelous Sara Alexander. Not only did she play the piano, she also acted the part of Chaplin’s mother. The music not only supported the action there were recurring themes within it as well as renditions of Chaplin’s song Smile.
The play follows the journey of the two stars as they travel across the Atlantic. It time shifts, we are shown Chaplin’s childhood with his alcoholic father and it fast forwards to the meeting of Stan and Oliver Hardy.
For a play like this to be successful it relies completely on the physical skill of the performers.
Nick Haverson skilfully played Fred Karno, Chaplin’s dad and Oliver Hardy. He was suitability over the top in his movements and he pulled off Hardy’s mannerisms perfectly without drifting into caricature. His drumming was first class as well.
Jerome Marsh-Reid is a first-rate physical performer, but it is hard to pull off Stan Laurel’s screen persona within this context. The secret of the success of the Laurel and Hardy characters is that Stan is stupid, but Oliver is dumber because he thinks he is smart. It requires that relationship for the Laurel character to work. Otherwise, he just comes across as someone rather vacant.
Danielle Bird as Chaplin was superb. Her expressions, timing, agility and gymnastic skills were exemplary. She performed with charm and a lightness of touch that was a delight to watch. It felt at times she was dancing on air. A very impressive display of physical theatre.
The piece was written and directed by Paul Hunter. He says in the programme that he, ‘set out to create a comically unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists.’ It is safe to say he achieved that, and I doubt that anyone watching the play learnt anything new about Chaplin or Laurel but that was not the point.
Overall, the play was charming and full of heart. There were a couple of moments when audience members were invited to take part which only added to the cosy spirit in which it was performed. Perhaps it lacked the blend of comedy and drama that some of Chaplin’s best films possessed. A touch of darkness might have given it more texture.
It was an entertaining evening, and I would definitely recommend it.
Charlie and Stan is on at The Lowry Theatre, Salford until the 18th September. https://thelowry.com/whats-on/charlie-and-stan/
Reviewer: Adam Williams
Reviewed: 13th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★