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REVIEW: Charlie and Stan at The Everyman in Cheltenham

Charlie and Stan at The Everyman in Cheltenham

Written and directed by Paul Hunter (additional material by the cast)
Presented by David Pugh, Told By An Idiot and Theatre Royal Bath Productions
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Rating: ★★★

This refreshingly original play is inspired by the fact that, in 1910, two comic legends – Charlie Chaplin and Stan Jefferson (better known as Stan Laurel) – shared a sea voyage to America as members of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe.  Taking this encounter as their springboard, writer/director Paul Hunter and the cast have devised a kaleidoscopic, non-linear and sometimes confusing narrative.  Charlie and Stan is not so much a story as a series of vignettes.  These include a flashback to Charlie’s harrowing Victorian childhood, a flash-forward to Stan’s partnership with Oliver Hardy, and a fantasy sequence in which Charlie accidentally kills Stan and (hilariously) disposes of his corpse.

The show takes the form of a silent movie.  It has no dialogue, but it does have heaps of Keystone-style physical comedy – slapstick, pratfalls, cartoon violence, acrobatics and surreal humour – as well as early movie tropes such as mawkish sentimentality, caption cards and a live piano accompaniment.  It also has a cute dog puppet.  If cute dog puppets aren’t your thing, then I’m afraid we can’t be friends.

The live soundtrack is brilliantly performed by virtuoso pianist Sara Alexander, who ostentatiously sanitises her hands before touching the keyboard and who doubles as Chaplin’s mother.  The rest of the uniformly strong cast are all accomplished physical performers, executing seemingly dangerous routines – teetering on the edge of the theatre balcony – with great aplomb.  Danielle Bird perfectly portrays Chaplin’s shuffling gait, twitchy mannerisms and toothy simper, as subsequently embodied in his classic comic creation The Tramp.  Jerone Marsh-Reid captures the essence of Stan: he is self-effacing, head-scratching and generally bewildered – a charming underdog.  Nick Haverson excels in a trio of roles: as cheroot-chomping Fred Karno, he entices entertainers into signing lengthy (and evidently onerous) contracts by waving thick wads of cash under their noses; as Chaplin’s absent father Charles Sr., an entertainer and alcoholic, he sings a music hall song with pathos and menace; and, with a cushion up his shirt, he evokes fond memories of finger-twiddling comedian Oliver Hardy.  This is a true ensemble show, with other parts being played by Harris Cain and Frances Knox.

A play without dialogue can be hard work for an audience, but Charlie and Stan is a rewarding experience precisely because it is so challenging.  However, much as I enjoyed the show, I did feel emotionally detached, as if I were watching a circus performance rather than a theatrical one; that is, apart from one breathtaking moment, which (perhaps significantly) involved a snatch of dialogue.  It was when Chaplin’s psychotic mother Hannah sang gibberish as she was being forced into a strait-jacket.  Suddenly, the play became more than a succession of technical tricks.  Suddenly, it reached out and touched me.  Suddenly, I was emotionally involved.  I wish there had been more moments like it.

Running time: 85 minutes (no interval)
Charlie and Stan runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Friday 3 September 2021.

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
2 September 2021

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