This unlikely pairing on a cross-Atlantic ship is the inspiration for Told by an Idiot's The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Using mime, live music, physical theatre and slapstick, the cast of four weaves together a series of true and fictitious incidents in a tapestry of vignettes from the possible lives of the two comedic greats
They do so with great artistry, jumping back and forth across continents and time zones so that we see different moments from their lives – both independently and together. Drawing on the traditions of the films of both Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, the movements are rapid and caricatured with plenty of exaggerated moves, facial expressions and plenty of playing for laughs.
The era of classic black and white films is also referenced in the device of written scene-sets, a velvet red curtain to scene change and dramatic piano music composed by Zoe Rahman and performed brilliantly by Sara Alexander who also plays Chaplin's mother.
Amalia Vitale brings great energy to her portrayal of Chaplin, copying his mannerisms and walk so she is instantly recognisable as the actor. She shows us his vulnerability in a difficult childhood, his sudden smile but also his relentless ambition.
Jerone Marsh-Reid's Laurel draws less on the characteristic style we know from the Laurel and Hardy movies – there's none of that head-scratching and eyebrow-raising which immediately says Stan. But there is a softness to the character which makes you root for him. Completing the cast, Nick Haverson takes on a range of roles including impresario Fred Karno who took the duo to America, Charlie's drunken father and, with the help of a cushion on his belly, Oliver Hardy.
They also call on a couple of audience members to help out at times – be warned if you are sitting in the front row!
With no words and a patchwork plot, maintaining momentum for a 90-minute show without an interval is challenging and there are definite ups and downs in the production. There are some scenes where there's a risk the action is so obscure or manic that the audience isn't quite sure what is going on. And one scene, featuring the death of Hardy, feels incongruous in this light-hearted dash through the careers of Chaplin and Laurel.
But writer and director Paul Hunter has worked hard to keep the story moving throughout and there are some ingenious moments of pure comedy and pathos which will delight audiences. Ioana Curelea's design takes us immediately on board the ship but also doubles up as Chaplin's homes, theatres and even the Savoy Hotel.
The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is an imaginative and fun show which shines a light on two very different characters thrown together at the beginning of their careers. It plays Birmingham Repertory Theatre's Studio Theatre until February 29.