From my seat the stage was filled with different wooden levels, one of which held up a small red velvet curtain, a drum set on top of that, and a piano off to the side of the set. Other than that, you could see all the walls of the stage, all black.
It felt simple somehow.
This is exactly how I would describe The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel; simple yet dynamic, with only four cast members and an ever-shifting rotation of characters.
While there were some moments of speech, or rather singing, the night was mostly silent, other than the theatrical music reminiscent of a Chaplin film itself, performed by Sara Alexander on piano. Impressively, she had no sheet music and interacted with each character, even becoming Charlie’s mother for a scene which she performed with such effortlessness whilst still continuing to create a soundtrack for the night.
The show was based on the 1910 ship on course for New York, aboard, Charlie Chaplin (played by Amalia Vitale) and Stan Laurel (Jerone Marsh-Reid), both unknown acts at the time and both a part of Fred Karno’s musical hall troupe.
Throughout the play, scenes play out of their meeting and interactions, but then diverge to show Charlie’s childhood, Stan meeting his comedy-partner Oliver Hardy, and Stan trying to reconnect with Charlie years beyond their fame with a framed picture of them from the 1910 ship venture.
The lack of dialogue felt odd for a moment but it was remedied by the amount of physical use of the stage and versatility of the cast which kept those thoughts at bay. Unlike the charm of a Chaplin film, the show did not carry this atmosphere the entire way through.
At times, the physical comedy felt too forced, making me wonder whether I was part of a generation beyond silent films and physical comedy. Other moments, though, were so well done that I felt transported into another world.
This is partly due to Amalia Vitale’s beautiful characterization of Chaplin himself, even having the distinct walk of the comedy star. There were aspects featured the familiar Chaplin charm, like a brilliant scene in which Vitale magically lights a candelabra, and when one light does not turn on, the actor aggressively pushes down the prop light and winks at the audience.
My favorite elements of the show were times when the show was aware of itself and what time it was in. During a scene where Charlie is in need of assistance lifting a heavy body, he calls the pianist, bribing her with money after she refuses the first time. She immediately leaves her post, only then for both characters to realize their need for the music to continue the scene.
On the red velvet curtain, the projector, which was used to show some dialogue throughout the night, shows ‘does anyone in the audience know piano? One of you must have learned in school.’
A brave and giggling woman from the back row was taken on stage and gracefully played a song for the two performers to carry on. This, I thought, was perfection, bringing an element in for a generation of interactive instagramers and twitter posters.
A stand-out performance of the night was Nick Haverson (playing Fred Karno, Charlie’s dad, Oliver Hardy, among other characters). He had the ability to transform into his new characters so well beyond himself, it felt like a new actor on stage. In one scene, he physically puts a mustache on and stuffs a pillow under his shirt to become Oliver Hardy. It was so brilliant to watch.
The show ended with the song ‘Smile’, not Nat King Cole’s version but another I could not identify. Based on the instrumental theme used in Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, the song felt a little on-the-nose for the show, but upon reflection it fit perfectly with what the show was trying to accomplish.
A night reminiscent of an era when no words were needed to make someone laugh or feel. Though there were moments that did not quite work, I certainly appreciated the message and enjoyed what it was trying to do.