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Cambridge Arts Theatre: The secret history of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

A little known encounter between two of the world’s greatest comedy legends is the inspiration for this outlandish theatrical caper coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

In 1910, the then unknown Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail onboard a steamer from Liverpool to New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe. On the voyage, they shared a cabin, they shared comedy routines and by the end of the journey they had drifted apart… but they would both go on to become two of the biggest stars of the age.

Inspired by real life events, Told by an Idiot’s acclaimed production of Charlie and Stan is the remarkable story of the greatest comedy double act that nearly was.

Cambridge Arts Theatre Autumn season 2021: Charlie and Stan (51089806)
Cambridge Arts Theatre Autumn season 2021: Charlie and Stan (51089806)

Writer Paul Hunter explained: “I was fascinated by the idea that, as an older man, Stan Laurel talked about Chaplin all his life. Even when Stan was dying, he would often talk about that time when they were young, and basically said that for him Chaplin was the greatest of us all; he was the greatest clown; we owe everything to Chaplin.

“And then when you look at Chaplin's autobiography, which goes into an immense detail around every period of his life including this, he hasn't mentioned Laurel by name. I found this very intriguing and thought ‘oh there's something in this’, particularly because Stan would understudy Chaplin and went on stage for him.”

Stan Laurel went on to become world famous with his comedy partner Oliver Hardy, but Chaplin never shared the limelight.

Paul explains: “Some of that you could say was due to his very brutal Victorian childhood. His mother was in the asylum and father dead from drink at 32 and he went in an orphanage with his brother. So he was fiercely independent I suppose and escaped something so awful that maybe he was very driven, not just to escape but of course to go on to become one of the most famous men in the world. So I was interested in that dynamic.”

He also wanted to bring to life Fred Karno, who ran the famous music hall troupe that employed Chaplin and Laurel before their fame.

There was a moment when someone in the room said what if, while sharing this tiny cabin on the boat, Charlie got more and more frustrated with Stan and ended up accidentally killing him

Wild and offbeat, the show clings only lightly to historical fact - at one point it even appears Charlie may have killed Stan with a frying pan - but it is all played for laughs, in the tradition of these comedy heroes.

“To begin with I was a little bit wary of writing about Charlie and Stan when there's so many films and books about them, but then once we got into a rehearsal room and started exploring it I found a new way of looking at it.”

This is the fact that the story plays out as a silent movie, told in mime and slapstick with an original piano score played live every night.

“I thought maybe making them silent was the key to making this homage not just to these two comedy greats, but to that world that they were pioneering, by creating our version of a silent movie on stage. That felt quite different and exciting.

“There was a moment when someone in the room said what if, while sharing this tiny cabin on the boat, Charlie got more and more frustrated with Stan and ended up accidentally killing him. We all laughed and it made me think, yes, that feels quite audacious.”

After performances in 2019, Charlie and Stan has returned to stages across the country this summer in Bath and at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. It will come to the Cambridge Arts Theatre ahead of a West End transfer.

Actress Danielle Bird has been cast as Charlie Chaplin and Paul believes she captures Chaplin’s nimble movements and femininity.

He says: “ It also gives you license to go to slightly different places. There's a moment in the show, which I really love, which involves Charlie and a female member of the audience. And every night when I see it, I think that interaction would be very different if Chaplin was played by a man.”

He is delighted to be bringing the show back to the stage and feels it would not have worked as a streamed performance.

“This is a show that only works as live theatre and that’s where my interest lies,” says Paul.

“I have little interest in streaming theatre as a live medium, there's another medium that does that much better - it's called cinema. Theatre is about one group of people doing something, to have an effect on another group of people in the same space. And now we have come back together, it’s an emotional moment.”

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