Everyone’s a winner

Charlie Chaplin’s everyman qualities and his relationship with Stan Laurel are explored in a new theatre production in which the comic genius is played by a woman

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In 1910, the unknown Charlie Chaplin and Ulverston-born Stan Laurel set sail for New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe. They shared a cabin and then spent two years touring North America, with Laurel as Chaplin’s understudy.

Laurel returned home, later finding success with his comic partner Oliver Hardy, while Chaplin developed his Little Tramp character and within five years became one of the most famous figures in the world.

In Charlie Chaplin’s highly detailed autobiography Stan Laurel is never mentioned but Laurel talked about Chaplin all his life. Did Chaplin see Laurel as a rival? Did they fall out? Why is so little known about the relationship between the two comic actors?

“Well, that’s part of why we have made this show, as that question is unanswerable and therefore intriguing,” says Amalia Vitale, who plays Chaplin in a new stage show that plays fast and loose with the scant facts to imagine what could have happened. “We do know that Stan greatly admired Charlie and that Charlie, although often very generous to those in need, kept worthy competition at a comfortable distance.

“I like to imagine them swapping gag tips and ideas in their ship bunk but if Charlie was inspired by Stan I don’t think he would have let on about it.”

Produced by the ground-breaking experimental theatre company Told By An Idiot, The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is a funny and moving homage to the two comedy legends. The show includes an original piano score played live each night, composed by Mobo Award-winner Zoe Rahman.

Playing Chaplin, with his distinctive balletic slapstick style, is something Vitale has taken extremely seriously.

“I set myself the challenge of watching every single one of his movies, from his very early 10 minute reels to his epics, like City Lights and The Great Dictator, towards the latter part of his career. Doing this allowed me to see the development of his performance style, the birth and growth of the Tramp and his changes in taste,” says the performer, who trained at Birmingham Conservatoire and cites Whoopi Goldberg as her inspiration to become an actor.

“One of the best things I managed to watch was a three-part series on DVD called Unknown Chaplin, which has reams of footage of Charlie not performing but doing things like directing, plotting scenes, telling lazy extras off and entertaining Winston Churchill when he came to visit the set. It’s a great archive and a window into who Charlie was, as opposed to the Tramp and other characters.”

Vitale’s dedication to understanding Chaplin extended to reading everything she could find about him too, but she says she’s only just allowed herself to start reading his own autobiography now that touring the show is underway.

“With all due respect to him, I sometimes think people write a version of themselves and I wasn’t sure that would be altogether helpful to begin with. I’m really enjoying it and I feel like I’m getting to know him in a much more familial way rather than looking down a lens at him,” she says.

Vitale is familiar with performing physical comedy on stage and runs her own theatre company called All In but, like Stan Laurel, she says she has learnt much from studying Charlie Chaplin that she will carry with her into performances beyond The Strange Tale.

“I have learnt, or rather been reminded of, the joy of performing and to never forget what an absolute pleasure it is,” she says.

Taking on this role as a woman, she believes, is hugely significant.

“I saw a female Faust advertised on the underground for the Lyric today which is exciting, and the brilliant Sophie Russell is currently playing Richard III at the Globe,” she points out. “I’m sure there are many who think ‘does every iconic male role have to be played by a woman?’ and the answer is yes.

“There’s a lot of work to do to redress the balance of the representation of women in theatre and getting us to play blood-drenched kings, dissatisfied souls willing to make a pact with the devil, or, in my case, dare I say it, someone funny, is the bare minimum.”

But Vitale says her gender was never an obstacle she had to overcome to play Chaplin.

“Charlie’s Tramp represents humanity, our highs, our lows, our wants and losses and, above all, our beautiful idiocy. He’s often referred to as the everyman – I suppose it would be better to think of him as everyone.”

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel is at Home, Manchester, 4-8 Feb; Unity Theatre, Liverpool, 18-22 Feb; and STJ, Scarborough, 3-7 March. For the full schedule see toldbyanidiot.org 

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