Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel shared a boat from the UK to New York in 1910, as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Stan later understudied for Charlie – before they went their separate, and separately legendary, ways. Is that a “strange tale”? Not really – it’s just a scrap of biography, a fleeting association about which little is known. But in this silent comedy for the London international mime festival, Told By An Idiot mine it for beguiling oddity, as Chaplin, Laurel and Karno shuttle and pratfall around a transatlantic liner and episodes from their past and future vault into view like salmon from the sea.
The effect is less tale, more short stories. It is assembled with minimal rhyme and reason, but with the follow-its-nose logic (and illogic) to which the company’s fans – myself included – are well accustomed. Director Paul Hunter valued “fiction over fact [and] fantasy over reality”, the programme tells us – which explains the central sequence, in which Chaplin accidentally kills his underling with a frying pan and (after the obligatory manhandling-a-corpse slapstick sequence) hurls the hapless Lancastrian overboard.
Occasionally, in a show with few spoken words and only a few more projected captions, the thread is hard to follow. But it remains a delight to submerge oneself in the wordless world Hunter and his company weave, powerfully summoning that moment when vaudeville and silent movies meet. On Ioana Curelea’s gimcrack multi-platform set – now a sea vessel, now backstage at the theatre – it opens strongly, with a madcap embarkation scene involving much business with Karno’s suitcase. (Is it heavy? Is it light?) Soon we flashback to Charlie’s childhood, a Victorian melodrama of threatening bailiffs, drunken dads and woebegone (also drunken) mums. Mum is played by Sara Alexander, who underscores and interacts with the action on piano (music by Zoe Rahman) – later recruiting audience assistance when she’s needed on stage.
In the spirit of the performers it depicts, this Strange Tale isn’t shy of addressing its audience – albeit without words. One lovely interlude finds Amalia Vitale’s Chaplin distracted by an audience member, who – after a demure flirtation – she then invites on stage for a swim. It’s pulled off with such gentle grace by Vitale, who brings Chaplin – that odd rolling walk; the knowingly innocent expression – to uncanny life. She performs with a featherlight touch the various tumbles, scrambles and slaps to the face required – in which the hand is conspicuously that of the great Jos Houben as “physical comedy consultant”.
Jerone Marsh-Reid is a similarly endearing presence as Laurel, whose gangly physicality contrasts nicely with the pocket-sized Chaplin, on whom he dotes. But wide-eyed naivety is the only expression we see him wear – and his stories aren’t given prominence. He’s in danger of being upstaged by Nick Haverson’s Oliver Hardy, reanimated in a wonderful transformation scene, as Haverson shoves a pillow up his shirt and affixes a duct-tape moustache – before his fingers start twiddling, Hardy-like, on his chest.
In a range of manic, well-defined cameos – from cigar-chewing Karno to Charlie’s raucous dad – Haverson makes Stan and Charlie’s world feel vividly alive. It may not always be clear why certain episodes – “The Death of Ollie”, say, or “The Birth of Charlie” – have been chosen for inclusion. But, taken sketch by sketch, this fantasia on Chaplin and Laurel – all at sea, but on the precipice of superstardom – is seldom less than magical.