Review: ★★★★ The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Review: ★★★★ The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

“In Charlie Chaplin’s highly detailed autobiography Stan Laurel is never mentioned. Stan talked about Charlie all his life.” A blend of slick mime, striking physical comedy, and a delightful musical underscore, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is an exquisite adventure into the lives of two of comedy’s most famous figures. 

Told by an Idiot specialises in creating theatre that is “bigger than life”, and The Strange Tale… is no exception; co-commissioned by the London International Mime Festival and made in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth, this is more than a straightforward biopic of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Fragments of their lives are woven together by writer/director Paul Hunter, using the warm nostalgia of silent film intertitles and playful physical sequences to flit between the highs and lows of their journeys to fame.

The cast work in unison to make hard work look effortless – rolls, tumbles, fights and falls are executed with precision to create delightful bursts of slapstick. Amalia Vitale’s performance as Charlie Chaplin brings a wonderful cheekiness to the character, with an exceptionally sharp physical comedy that both impresses and entertains. We see a lovable Stan Laurel in Jerone Marsh-Reid, whose mastery over movement control and comedic timing shines both as Laurel, and as a handful of other fleeting characters. Nick Haverson’s multi-roling performance is equally impressive, sliding with ease from character to character as the many passing figures punctuating Chaplin and Laurel’s lives in a way that brings a childlike joy to The Strange Tale… As well as playing Chaplin’s mother, Sara Alexander’s previously mentioned musical prowess weaves beauty and suspense into the piece to create an auditory spectacle.

Aspects of narrative, plot and character are, however, sometimes lost amidst this spectacle; the emphasis on sensory impressiveness results in the meaning of particular sequences and the identity of some characters becoming blurred, while moments of audience participation felt somewhat shoehorned into the piece. As the tale goes on, events become somewhat repetitive and confusing, and could possibly benefit from the same clarity that is applied to the cast’s physical comedy.

Ioana Curelea’s intricate set, however, redeems the pitfalls of the spectacle, acting as a canvas upon which comedy is skillfully painted. Covered in stacked briefcases, wooden platforms and nautical equipment, the set creates not only a beautifully detailed environment, but also a flexible space; objects are deftly moved by the sensational cast to transform the stage from bunk-beds to backstage corners and more. The set itself also functions as a musical tool, beaten to accompany the gorgeous piano played by Sara Alexander that seamlessly stitches the performance together. Here, nothing is wasted – the set, music and movement are all utilised with care to create a playful landscape of comedy.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a deliciously inventive look into the joys of comedy, navigating the lives of two of its best-loved stars through a mix of fact and fiction to give a contemporary voice to the era of silent film. Here, physical comedy is the language of the piece, and laughter is its heart, creating a performance that will leave you feeling full. 

Hayley Gow

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