The world of the silent film star seems to be a bygone era. I cannot recall the last time terrestrial television broadcasted something from that long gone forgotten age, where once upon a time we would be accustomed to the antics of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin or that irascible double act, Laurel and Hardy. In The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel from ‘Told by an Idiot’ at HOME Manchester, we are transported back into that wonderful world where without an utterance of a spoken word, entertainers can become such captivating storytellers.
The cornerstone of this production is the strange but true fact that in 1910 the unknown Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail for New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe. Within a few short years they had conquered America. The thing is no one really knows what happened on that voyage and their friendship was not really of any particular significance. What’s more the programme notes reinforce the fact that what is to be staged is more or less fictional.
Playing fast and loose with the facts … no nostalgic bio-drama .. The events in this play are fictional. This play is certainly not endorsed by the estates of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel or anyone else for that matter!
Sure enough, what we get is something that is lovingly crafted as a homage to the world of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Indeed, in Amalia Vitale, we have an actor that conveys the magical world of that era with aplomb. She shines as Chaplin. It’s a wonderfully adept performance that is more than just the familiar costume and the wonderfully idiosyncratic walk that we can all identify with the silent film superstar. She instantly connects with the audience not just through the slapstickness of those comedy routines but also the sheer acting through her emotions, no more typified by the odd affectionate glance or an emotive shrug.
Written and directed by Paul Hunter, this is a well crafted show. The set designed by Ioana Curelea is more than just the inner surroundings of a ship, it’s designed with its use in mind as an exaggerated extended prop for the performers to use in their array of skills. The music is equally as important, with an original piano score composed by Mercury Award Nominee Zoe Rahman, which scintillates throughout the production.
And yet I leave the performance somewhat wondering what was the point other than a series of memorable vignettes celebrating the comic capers of Chaplin and Laurel. There is a lack of a narrative, with a supposed fictionalised retelling of that voyage, interspersed with select key events from Chaplin and Laurel’s lives – which all seem a bit fairly random. At times it seems lopsided in Chaplains favour. Indeed, I felt that we were ultimately in Chaplins’ world and the rest were mere supporting cast given that the focus and attention remains largely on his character.
That lack of structure, with a show that lasts over 90 minutes, makes this production feel less zippy than it should. Pacing and vibe all sacrificed in order to pack in yet another elongated segment where the cast showcase their vaudeville showskills.
Verdict: A wonderful homage to the world of the silent film era that evokes the spirit of that world. At times an affectionate portrayal with Amalia Vitale being the a delight as Chaplin, criminally stealing every scene she appears in.