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Paul Hunter: The Strange Tale Of Charlie Chaplin And Stan Laurel

By | Published on Friday 3 January 2020

As you may be aware, the London International Mime Festival kicks off this week – hurrah – and one show appearing as part of it all is a brilliant sounding new production from the very excellent Told By An Idiot.

‘The Strange Tale Of Charlie Chaplin And Stan Laurel’ is a silent-movie-inspired piece based on true events in the lives of those two stars of the silver screen.

I was very keen to find out more, so put some questions to Told By An Idiot’s Paul Hunter, the director of the piece.

CM: Let’s start at the beginning: what is ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’ all about? What story does it tell?
PH: It is inspired by true events in the early careers of two iconic comic performers. When they were young men Charlie and Stan were both part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe, the most famous of its time. Stan understudied Charlie and they spent eighteen months together touring the UK, sailing to America and crossing the United States.

Stan spoke of Charlie all his life, but in Chaplin’s highly detailed autobiography he never mentions Laurel once. Using this as a trigger we have created what we call a ‘True Fantasy’ valuing fiction over fact, fantasy over reality, and taking the audience on a funny poignant journey from an ocean liner in 1910, into the past, the future, and the world of the imagination.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PH: The piece looks at the themes of friendship, youthful idealism, and time lost. All through the prism of a unique stage version of a contemporary silent movie.

CM: Is the story entirely fictional, or does it have a basis in reality? Are the characters portrayed true to their real life inspirations?
PH: In terms of the central characters of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, our aim was to capture something of the spirit of these two extraordinary artists, and resist the temptation to try and recreate them or their work which would have inevitably felt reductive. Following this instinct it allowed us to cast the roles in a potentially more surprising way, and finding Amalia Vitali – Chaplin – and Jerone Marsh Reid – Laurel – enabled for an intriguing take on two very familiar figures.

CM: What made you want to create a show about them? Are you a fan?
PH: I wanted to make a show about Charlie and Stan because I believed we had something different to say, and that stylistically our piece would be very different to anything that had gone before.

Most work in film, TV, or theatre on the subject would be rooted in some kind of bio drama, whereas our play is a wilder, more poetic experience.

CM: Did you do much research to inform the show?
PH: Inevitably over the past two years I have undertaken some intensive research on both Chaplin and Laurel. However, there comes a point when creating something new that research can become a crutch or a restriction in the wrong way. I agree with the great writer Geoff Dyer who in his essay ‘My Life as a Gatecrasher’ wrote: “It’s not what you know that’s important, it’s what your passion gives you the potential to discover”.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
PH: I have an extraordinary cast, talented, generous, and totally committed. The piece is told without words so I knew I wanted a live piano score but I also wanted it played by one of the performers who would also take the crucial role of Hannah Chaplin – Charlie’s Mother. This was no easy search but luckily I stumbled across the wonderful Sara Alexander, a terrific actor and a great jazz infused improviser. Nick Haverson, a wonderfully versatile performer and skilled drummer joined the team, and of course Amalia and Jerone capture perfectly the young naive quality of two fantastic artists in their formative years.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the music accompanying the show, and its creator?
PH: The music for our show is composed by the acclaimed Mercury Award Nominee Jazz Pianist Zoe Rahman. It is my third collaboration with Zoe and she really is unique, and a joy to work with. Her work is routed in spontaneity, as was Charlie and Stan’s, so this makes it a perfect combination.

Zoe and I were very interested in juxtaposition as was Chaplin, who said: “I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the tramp character”.

Zoe constantly looked for the balance between music that was composed and improvised. She also worked around creating themes for characters which resulted in a score that has a cinematic quality, which was perfect for our show.

CM: Are there plans to take the show elsewhere after the London run?
PH: After our London run the show goes out on an eight week national tour. You can see the list of tour dates here.

CM: Told By An Idiot has been producing since the early nineties – what have been your highlights?
PH: In the Idiots’ 27 year history some highlights would include:

Taking our show ‘My Perfect Mind’ to New York and Bill Murray coming to see it, and hanging out with him afterwards. That was pretty wild.

Performing our first show ‘On The Verge of Exploding’ at the Market Theatre Johannesburg, and becoming the first British Company to tour in South Africa post apartheid.

Hearing some young Muslim girls who had never been in a theatre before raving about our show with Simon Armitage ‘I Am Thomas’.

CM: What aims do you have for the company in the future?
PH: Our aim for the future is to continue to make work that provokes, surprises, and entertains the widest audience. Creating theatre that is genuinely experimental yet totally accessible.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PH: After ‘Charlie and Stan’ I shall be doing something completely different. I will be playing the part of Albie in Simon Callow’s new version of the French play ‘La Cage Au Folles’.

‘The Strange Tale Of Charlie Chaplin And Stan Laurel’ is on at Wilton’s Music Hall from 14-18 Jan. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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