The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel
Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020
I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.
In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.
PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.
90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was a new playwriting name for me. No longer. A Kind of People takes a not uncommon subject, racism in contemporary Britain, and not uncommon set-ups, a mixed race marriage, friendships, a party, a workplace, and conjures up an insightful and nuanced drama, with (mostly) credible dialogue and (mostly) well-rounded characters. If this sounds like I am damming with faint prose I am not. Getting this type of play just right, without getting preachy or taking too unlikely a turn, is not easy so hats off to both writer, and director Michael Buffong from Tawala.
Given the impact that GKB’s previous plays have had my ignorance of her work extends well beyond remiss. Her first play Behsharam (Sensation) was a great success, Behzti (Dishonour), which included the rape of a young woman in a gurdwara, won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2005, before being chased off the Birmingham Rep stage by British Sikh protestors. Her next Behud (Beyond Belief) drew on her experiences around Behzti, followed by Londonee, Fourteen, Khandan (Family), Elephant and Dishoom!. As far as I can work out all of this draw on her own life and Sikh heritage whilst A Kind of People expands beyond this.
Nicky (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Gary (Richie Campbell), childhood sweethearts, now married with three kids, just about managing, are throwing a small party. Gary’s white best mate and work colleague, Mark (Thomas Coombes), is a permanent fixture, Mo (Asif Khan) and Anjum (Manjinder Virk), British Asian friends and neighbours, are a bit better off, Karen (Petra Letang), Gary’s sister and Nicky’s best mate, has just broken up with her partner. Gary’s boss at the electrical engineering company, Victoria (Amy Morgan), pitches up, overdoes it on the prosecco and retires, disgracefully, after a bout of overtly racist behaviour.
All is then forgiven? Not really. And then Gary goes for a promotion, which he doesn’t get despite being well qualified. He blames Victoria. Things unravel from there. See what I mean. No bombshells, disclosures, blasts from the past, or anything else to drive an audience double-take. GKB’s meticulous dialogue explores each character’s motivations and reactions without judgement leaving us to decide who is taking and causing offence and whether the consequences are justified. Maybe there are moments when dialogue to advance the plot, flesh out back stories and build the arguments emerges just a little too artificially, but hey, it’s a play not “real life”.
Fair to say that this production also benefits from two central performances that skilfully mine the ambivalence of the text. The only time I have seen Claire-Louise Cordwell on stage was in the dreadful A Tale of Two Cities at the Open Air Theatre for which she takes no blame. Like her, Richie Campbell is also a TV veteran and the experience of both in gritty screen drama and even soaps shines through. This is well beyond soap cliche however, though I note that GKB cut her teeth on Eastenders and has form with The Archers, but the trick of drawing attention to thorny socio-political tensions through heightened individual dilemmas, bears comparison. (Early on Victoria remarks that the party is “so nice, just like off the telly”). Multiple points of view, uncomfortable truths, flawed but empathetic personalities. Gary is casually sexist, Victoria is, at best, full on white gaze, Anjum explicitly classist when it comes to her son’s education, Mark is jealous and manipulative.
Anna Fleischle’s set switches briskly between the couple’s council flat and the workplace, and the park where the play, poignantly, concludes, in flashback. So that nothing gets in the way of the audience’s, palpable, reactions to the unfolding drama. I would hazard a guess that All Kinds of People is a play that has been allowed time to develop and that GKB has been generous in taking on the advice and suggestions of her various collaborators. Which will have helped make it such a tight, effective and vital story.
Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2019
The Tourist’s last exposure to Arthur Miller’s oppressive tale of an ordinary man brought low by his particularly disturbing brand of hamartia was Ivo van Hove’s stripped bare psychodrama with Mark Strong at his very best as Eddie Carbone, alongside Nicola Walker as wife Beatrice and Phoebe Fox as woman-child orphan niece. Miller’s debt to the Greeks is rarely hidden. Here Ivo and Jan Versweyveld didn’t spare us one iota of gut wrenching intensity as Eddie tumbled into his hell of shame and betrayal.
Juliet Forster, the Associate Director at the York Theatre Royal, the co-producer, takes a more traditional, naturalistic path, with an Eddie in Nicholas Karimi who, as his disgust at the passage of Catherine, (Lili Miller in a commendable professional debut), from child to woman and her relationship with the, in his eyes, effete Rodolpho, (a nuanced Pedro Leandro), boils over, lashes out with tragic consequences. Robert Pickavance as the lawyer Alfieri, the chorus who frames the story, locates us slap bang in 1950s Red Hook, the Italian-American neighbourhood in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge, dominated by the longshoremen who work the docks and their families. Rhys Jarman’s set, enclosed by steel beams and metal staircases, slips unobtrusively from the main room of the apartment where the Carbones live, and where most of the action takes place, to the docks themselves and Alfieri’s office. Aideen Malone’s lighting creates atmosphere without gloom and Sophie Cotton’s sound accents appropriately.
Eddie’s repugnant desire for Catherine, and the dearth of physical intimacy with Beatrice are not underplayed, but it is the way in which this represses and displaces his ungovernable emotions, mixed up with the machismo of his Sicilian background, that powers the obsession which breaks him. We cannot empathise with Eddie, he is wrong, but we can see how he is what he is. The more he strives to preserve his reputation and honour the more they dissolved.
The plight of the immigrant, the uncertainty of work, home and status, the conformity of community, the role of the law, gender stereotyping, all themes with relevance, and which Miller is careful to explore, are underplayed here in deference to the plot. There are some very fine supporting performances not least from Laura Pyper, whose dignity and commitment to her man never wavers, and especially, Reuben Johnson as Marco, the virtuous elder of the cousins, whose restraint when talking about the family he has had to leave behind contrast with the explosive anger he lets loose when he finds out that Eddie has denounced him and Rodolfo to the authorities.
So all the elements are there in this production, the pacing is never hurried, the lines are never snatched, the tension builds progressively. It just lacks the punch that comes from great Miller interpretations. Solid if not spectacular. But with Miller that is normally enough. Though clearly not for the numbnut who felt the need to unwrap a few sweets in the last 20 minutes or so at the back. You wonder why he didn’t just stay at home in front of the telly.
For those of you who, understandably, don’t have the time or inclination to filter through the vast opportunity set that is the London “subsidised” theatre sector and just want to spend your hard-earned coin on a proven theatrical production then the next few months is shaping up nicely. The following all have the Tourist’s cast iron guarantee seal of approval and, more importantly that of proper critics and audiences, so you can buy without fear of disappointment. Of course you must first check the subject is up your Strasse but the execution, in all the below cases, is top notch.
Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre. Lynn Nottage’s brilliant dissection of what’s wrong in America. Decently discounted for performances in the next couple of weeks.
The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre. Three peerless actors in a history of the Lehman dynasty. Though here you have to pay up for the rest of the run.
Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Theatrical magic telling the story of Joe Simpson’s agonising descent down a mountain. A little bit of discounting for the beginning of the run in November.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre. More theatrical magic condensing Louis de Bernieres sprawling novel about love and war. Again there are some offers which make this very good value for money.
Equus at the Trafalgar Studios. A mesmerising production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play about a young man wth an unhealthy obsession with horses and his psychologist saviour.
The Son at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Florian Zeller’s gripping new play about a depressed teen. Marginal discounting in August.
Rosmersholm at the Duke of York’s. Though be sure you like Ibsen. A rare West End bargain.
However topping all of this is the just announced transfer of the Young Vic Death of a Salesman to the Piccadilly Theatre from end October. Of course you could keep an eye out for returns on the day for the sold out run at the Young Vic or better still you could have listened to the Tourist months ago when he said this would be the play of the year. Because it is. But whatever you do don’t miss it.
And one final polite request before I tell you why it is so good. Bag some tickets to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. Just seen it. Nick Hytner has only gone and done it again. Reimaging Shakespeare for our world, with a twist. I don’t care if you are “bored” by Shakespeare. You won’t be here. I am going to go again.
Oh and if I had to pick one sure fire winner from what’s coming up it would be Robert Icke’s version of The Doctor at the Almeida with Juliet Stevenson.
Right finally back to The Death of a Salesman. Now, as any fool knows, this is Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It is Mr TFP’s favourite play. Wise man. Mrs TFP now knows why. As does the SO who, unusually, would fully endorse my 5* opinion. And this production shows the play off to maximum effect.
The gap between what is real and what Willy Loman imagines, between what Willy, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, think they can be and what they are is, a metaphor for the souring of the American Dream, that repeatedly and methodically bashes you over the head until it, as it should, hurts. But the personal tragedy should also be, as it is here, a massive emotional rush, as we see Willy fall apart, Linda Loman watching on, with a love that still cannot save him, Biff finally voicing his own pain and Happy trying to pretend his way out of his own disappointments. To elevate this into the drama stratosphere however, a director and creative team have to completely embrace Miller’s formal innovation. Being the stuff that goes on in Willy’s head. After all the original title for the play was The Inside of His Head. Especially all the memories from the past in Willy’s long first act reverie after he returns from his failed sales trip, (for which dreaming, personally, I blame the cheese sandwich).
Which Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cornwell, with the not inconsiderable assistance of Anna Fleischle’s set design, the barest, illuminated floating outlines of the Loman house, the Wagner office, Boston hotel room, Frank’s Chop House, the accompanying lighting design of Aideen Malone, Carolyn Downing’s sound and, especially, the composition of Femi Temowo. Miller specified a flute: this production delivers much, much more musically. Anna Fleischle writes bravely in the programme of how her own father’s suicide in Munich when she was in her 20’s and he, like Willy, in his 5o’s, informed her intention to capture the space between the real and the illusory.
With sound, light and held poses delineating the flashbacks in Willy’s head, visible to those around him as he mumbles t0 the past, ad especially his big brother Uncle Ben, the next thing we need is a sympathetic Willy. This we get from Wendell Pierce. Now not being a big consumer of US TV drama, (and never having made it beyond series 1 of The Wire – still on the bucket list), and never, as far as I can work out, having seen any of his film performances, the Tourist had no real expectation about Mr Pierce going in. If I am honest I would say I marginally preferred the last Willy I saw, Don Warrington, in the Royal Exchange production directed by Sarah Frankcom. Mr Warrington is a big man, his Willy prouder (as it were), crushed by the disappointment off his life. Wendell Pierce by contrast, in his slightly too big suit, straining to hear the voices from the past, still clutching at imagined opportunities to turn his, or Biff’s, or Happy’s, lives towards success, clinging to the idea of his being “well liked”, is a far more vulnerable Willy, perhaps closer to the text.
His portrayal leaves substantial scope for Sharon D Clarke to show us just how “good” a person Linda is. Whether acting or singing, Ms Grant is a force of nature. It’s what she holds back you see. When she finally lets rip at the boys after they abandon Willy at the restaurant, banging the table as she commands, “attention must be paid”, and then, when she asks Willy for forgiveness for not being able to cry at the bare funeral, I was in bits. Still am writing this.
And, as if that wasn’t enough there is Arinze Kene’s Biff. Now, as anyone who has seen Mr Kene on stage will know, this young man is prodigiously talented. As both a performer, and as he showed with Misty, as a writer. And Biff Loman might just be the greatest “supporting” actor male role in C20 theatre. As Arinze Kene shows here. When he finally rounds on Willy, for the witnessed sin with the Woman, I confess I was bloody scared. I am guessing that for Mr Kene some of Biff’s situation is personal. I gather that the 14 year old Arinze first got the acting bug when he stumbled into a workshop at the Arcola by accident. Yet another reason to thank the Arcola and Mehmet Ergen
There are multiple reasons why casting the Loman’s as an African-American family in pre-Civil Rights America works, but the cumulative frustration that crushes Biff as he realises that racism lies behind his disappointments, is one of the most powerful. All done with context and one line left hanging, (for that is the only liberty Marianne Elliot has taken with the text). How anyone will ever revert to a white Loman family after this, (and a near similar thesis for the Royal Exchange production), stumps me. Even the story of Ben making his fortune in Africa in a diamond mine takes on a whole new perspective.
Which just leaves Martins Imhangbe to complete the family quartet. Now Happy, as a role, can suffer against the dazzling characterisations of his Dad, Mum and Bro. Not here though. Mr Imhangbe, who impressed in An Adventure at the Bush, nailed Happy’s swagger, confidence and conciliatory optimism, whilst still recognising his own ambition is slowly being diminished.
The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint when they are called upon in their key scenes: Trevor Cooper’s Charley when he lends money to an ungrateful Willy, now taking on an even sharper edge; Joseph Mydell imperiously striding off stage and up the aisle as Willy calls after the “ghost” of Ben; Ian Bonar as Bernard, now the lawyer, interrogating Willy as to why Biff flunked summer school, and then again as the very faintly disparaging waiter; Matthew Seadon-Young as the visibly flinching Howard when an humiliated Willy begs him for a desk job and all he wants to do is show off his new fangled tape recorder; Maggie Service as the indelicate, and white, Woman; and Jennifer Saayang and Nenda Neurer as the playful Miss Forsythe and her friend Letta.
Like I say. Tourist’s favourite play so far this year. As he thought it would be. Don’t miss it.