The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel heads to Chichester

Photo by Manuel Harlan
Photo by Manuel Harlan

In 1910 the unknown Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail for New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe.

On this journey, Charlie and Stan shared a cabin and then spent two years together touring North America, with Stan as Charlie’s understudy.

Stan returned home, later finding success with his soul mate Oliver Hardy. Charlie developed his Little Tramp character and within five years became one of the most famous figures in the world. Stan talked about Charlie all his life. In Charlie Chaplin’s highly detailed autobiography Stan Laurel is never mentioned…

These are the facts – facts which theatre company Told by an Idiot admit they will be playing “fast and loose” with when they bring The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel to Chichester’s Minerva Theatre from January 21-25.

It comes with an original piano score composed by Chichester-born Mercury Award nominee Zoe Rahman played live each night.

Writer and director Paul Hunter is promising not a nostalgic bio-drama, but a hilarious and deeply moving homage to two men who changed the world of comedy forever. The events in the play are fictional, and the play is certainly not endorsed by the estates of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel or anyone else for that matter, he stresses.

“Stan Laurel was so incredibly linked with Oliver Hardy, and Chaplin was very much his own man,” says Paul, “but for a long time I was very intrigued by the pair of them, particularly given Chaplin’s background and what he went on to achieve. We were doing a show about Napoleon where I was playing Napoleon, and Napoleon was one part that Chaplin always wanted to play but never did. He had plans to make a Napoleon movie for a long time, but it didn’t happen…”

Paul came across the tale of Chaplin and Laurel together in Fred Karno’s music hall troupe: “Chaplin was already there and was a bit older than Stan. Chaplin was an established star, and Laurel came in partly to understudy Chaplin, and I thought that was intriguing. There was one particular performance where Chaplin was not very happy with the material and confronted Karno who called his bluff. Chaplin walked out, and Stan went on and absolutely stormed it. Chaplin got word of it and came back and said OK he would do it.

“I found that relationship interesting. But I was very clear with the producers that I didn’t want to pursue it if it was just another show about two iconic figures. There is their own work that you can see if you want to. I thought we needed to do something different. The turning point for me was realising that I was not interested in doing some big bio-drama. We very, very clearly value fiction over reality, fantasy over fact.

“There is a rich tradition of things that are based in a kind of reality but which play fast and loose with it. I wanted to create something that captures the spirit of these men but which is surprising. That’s the reason we don’t use any of their routines from their movies. For me that would become very reductive very quickly. All of the routines we use are original to us.”

Part of the fascination is the contrast between the two characters: “There is obviously a massive difference when you are part of a double act and when you are on your own. Chaplin was never going to share it with anybody, but Stan found his real soul mate with Ollie, and that’s very interesting.

“They also had very contrasting backgrounds. Stan went to school. He had a reasonable childhood, but Chaplin had the most dreadful Victorian childhood. His father was a drunk and was dead at 36 and his mother was in an asylum, and he and his brother were in the workhouse. I find it extraordinary that he become the most famous person in the world and managed to escape.”

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