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Charlie and Stan at Wilton’s Music Hall

It seems very apt that the story of two English music hall performers, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel who both became major movie stars in Hollywood is being told at Wilton’s Music Hall in the east end of London in production company’s Told By An Idiot’s Charlie & Stan.

Charlie and Stan - credit Manuel Harlan.
Charlie and Stan – credit Manuel Harlan.

Framed as a silent movie using mime, music and silent movie-style title cards, most of Charlie & Stan takes place on the SS Cairnrona as Charlie and Stan cross the Atlantic as part of Fred Karno’s circus troupe on their way to find fame and fortune in America. Told as a fantasy rather than as a depiction of actual events, there are flashbacks, flash-forwards and dream sequences that propel the narrative at speed so the action rarely flags during the eighty minutes or so – helped by the fact that there’s no interval – always a bonus.

During the show we get to see how Charlie and Stan allegedly met, a flashback to Charlie’s difficult childhood, the coming together of Laurel and Hardy and other set pieces that never fail to delight. Ioana Curelea’s amazing Atlantic liner set design is on various levels and allows the performers’ space to show off their athleticism as they race up and down the ship’s decks, fall into the large funnel at the rear of the stage and produce Mary Poppin’s like, large objects from a small suitcase. Adding to the atmosphere is some excellent lighting design from Aideen Malone which helps see the mood. Paul Hunter (who also wrote the show) directs with a light touch that allows the cast to show off their multitude of talents and interact seamlessly.

However, the real stars (and so they should be) are the four performers who make up the ensemble cast. There’s both gender and colour-blind casting with Charlie played superbly by Danielle Bird and Stan played by the equally splendid Jerone Marsh-Reid. They’re aided and abetted by Nick Haverson who plays Fred Karno, Oliver Hardy and Charlie’s Dad as well as accompanying the others with some superb and at times fabulously frenetic drumming. The fourth member of the cast is Sara Alexander who plays Charlie’s Mum in one of the flashbacks but mainly accompanies everyone with some evocative silent movie piano music composed by MOBO award-winning composer Zoe Rahman. Apart from Rahman’s music, there’s also the subtle use of “Smile” the song written by Chaplin himself but not until many years later but this is a fantasy after all.

Both Bird and Marsh-Reid seem to have bodies made of elastic as they throw themselves around, jumping from level to level and bending their bodies into balloon animal-like shapes. Both portray both the humour and pathos of the characters they’re playing and are a joy to watch. As hard as they work, it’s Haverson who at times steals the show portraying the greed and aggression of the hard taskmaster Fred Karno or staggering around the stage as Charlie’s drunkard of a father before morphing magically in front of our eyes into Oliver Hardy.

Charlie & Stan is part of the London International Mime Festival so if you love pratfalls, slapstick and plays without words, then this is the show for you. I must admit that as I’m not a big fan of either mime or silent movies, I approached Charlie & Stan with a bit of trepidation but whilst it might not have converted me into being a big fan of those genres, I loved everything about this show and left the theatre with a spring in my step as I walked into the freezing cold air of the splendidly named Graces Alley and made my silent way home.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

In 1910 the unknown Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail for New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe. On this journey, Charlie and Stan shared a cabin and then spent two years together touring North America, with Stan as Charlie’s understudy. Stan returned home, later finding success with his soulmate Oliver Hardy. Charlie developed his Little Tramp character and within five years became one of the most famous figures in the world.  In Charlie Chaplin’s highly detailed autobiography, Stan Laurel is never mentioned. Stan talked about Charlie all his life. Charlie and Stan premiered at Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2019, originally produced by Told by an Idiot and Theatre Royal Plymouth with Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Unity Theatre, Liverpool and co-commissioned by London International Mime Festival.

Company information
Written and directed by Paul Hunter
Set design by Ioana Curelea
Lighting design by Aideen Malone
Composer Zoe Rahman
Songs arranged by Sophie Cotton

Cast: Sara Alexander, Danielle Bird, Nick Haverson, Jerone Marsh Reid

Listings information
18 Jan – 4 Feb
Wilton’s Music Hall
1 Graces Alley, London, E1 8JB
www.wiltons.org.uk | 020 7702 2789

7 – 11 Feb
Mercury Theatre
Colchester, CO1 1PT

14 – 18 Feb
York Theatre Royal
St. Leonards Place, York YO1 7HD

21 – 23 Feb
MAST Mayflower Studios
Above Bar Street, Southampton, SO14 7DU

28 Feb – 4 March Derby Theatre
15 Theatre Walk, St Peter’s Quarter, Derby, DE1 2NF

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