Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel arrived in the United States on the same ship. Both honed their slapstick skills as part of theatre impresario Frank Karno’s ‘army’. Both went on to change the shape of screen comedy.
Told by an Idiot tells the story of this brief meeting through a mixture of mime and physical comedy interspersed with silent movie surtitles and energetic live piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander.
The performances are a delight, as physically dexterous as they are eloquent, illustrating how both men’s music hall backgrounds would inform their screen personas. As Chaplin, Amalia Vitale proves herself a physical comedian of immense charm and skill. As Laurel, Jerone Marsh-Reid has expressive physicality and nimble feet. Nick Haverson, who can raise a laugh with an exaggerated drunken stumble or a waggle of an eyebrow, morphs from Karno to Laurel’s future comedy partner Oliver Hardy simply by stuffing a pillow up his shirt and popping a bowler hat on his head.
But Paul Hunter’s virtually dialogue-less production is less sure-footed when it comes to storytelling. It hops backwards and forwards in time, from the poverty and hardship of Chaplin’s Victorian childhood to his success in the US. We see the first time Laurel meets Hardy, and the latter’s death, but there’s little sense of emotional trajectory or what, if anything, the two men’s early shipboard encounter meant to either of them.
It’s enjoyable despite this. Ioana Curelea’s clever, multilevel set provides plenty of scope for pratfalls and tumbles, choreographer Nuna Sandy brings pep and energy to the dance sequences and, though designed as a touring production, the show can’t help but benefit from the magical atmosphere of Wilton’s Music Hall.