Vicky Edwards interviews Paul Hunter, writer and director of CHARLIE & STAN at the Minack Theatre

Monday 26th July, 2021

CHARLIE & STAN -The greatest comedy duo that nearly was
presented by David Pugh, Told by an Idiot and Theatre Royal Bath Productions
THE MINACK THEATRE 1 – 12 August 2021
NATIONAL PRESS NIGHT Monday 2 August 2021

Second only to a Covid vaccination when it comes to welcome shots in the arm, a fabulously funny and heart-warming entertainment about the greatest comedy duo that nearly was is coming to town. Vicky Edwards catches up with Paul Hunter, writer and director of Charlie & Stan.

Like many aspiring performers, before his career took off Charlie Chaplin did numerous jobs, including a stint as a doctor's boy. His lowly position wouldn’t have allowed him to prescribe, but, had he been permitted to, the great entertainer surely would have advocated that laughter was the best medicine. And boy do we all need a hefty dose of glee just now.

Based on a true but largely unknown story, in 1910 the then unknown Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail on board a tramp steamer from Liverpool to New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe. The two future stars shared a cabin. They also shared comedy routines and laughter, but, by the end of the journey, they hated each other.

As fascinated as he was by this piece of Chaplin and Laurel’s history, the show’s writer and director Paul Hunter (also Artistic Director of the acclaimed theatre company Told by an Idiot) initially had reservations about the project.

“I had no interest in making a bio drama or some sort of tribute show,” says Paul, who resolved only to be persuaded otherwise if he could find an angle that fitted with Told by an Idiot’s ethos of ambitious and creative storytelling.

Fast-forward to a week of development in a rehearsal room and suddenly Paul came face to face with a distinct possibility.

“Early on we created twenty minutes of material without anyone saying a word. I got very excited; this could be our homage to the silent movie.”

Favouring fiction over fact, Paul and the team created what he calls ‘a true fantasy.’ Coupled with the conviction that people desperately wanted a show that made them forget the virus-ridden woes, it was full steam ahead.  

“The style of the show is very original and different, and yes; it feels like exactly the right show to be coming back with,” confirms Paul, whose casting was inspired by the show’s brilliant physical comedy consultant and famous Belgian clown Jos Houben.

“We didn’t want to go the looky-like route, which would have been very reductive. We wanted to cast in the spirit of Charlie and Stan and in a less obvious way, so Jos’s suggestion of casting ‘two brilliant kids’ opened things up a lot and kept it very theatrical.

“With Chaplin I thought it was more interesting to cast a woman because as he was such a delicate and feminine performer - when the great Nijinsky met Chaplin, he refused to believe that Chaplin hadn’t trained as a dancer.”

Casting young performers also helped Paul achieve his vision of a show that felt fresh and vibrant.

“I wanted to create a very contemporary show not a museum piece, and it had to have really broad appeal. This appeals to anyone who breathes because there are no words!”

And while slapstick comedy looks effortless, Paul points out that this is only because of the precise choreography and endless rehearsal that goes into making it look this way.

“The phrase most associated with Charlie Chaplin from a film crew’s point of view was ‘let’s do it again.’ He was a perfectionist because he knew that for a gag to work it had to be perfectly timed and perfectly executed. It takes hours to finesse a gag or routine,” says Paul, adding that securing Jos Houben as the production’s physical comedy specialist was imperative.

But Paul is at pains to reassure audiences that, while this is a silent comedy, they have nothing to fear. 

“It’s not some strange, experimental show. It is totally accessible to everyone; a joyous piece of entertainment.”

When it came to inspiration for telling a wordless story, Paul turned to the winner of the 2012 Best Picture Oscar, The Artist. Proving that a silent comedy can still go down an award-smashing storm in a modern world; while words weren’t essential, music definitely was.

A ‘huge joy,’ the original piano score, played live, was composed by contemporary jazz star Zoe Rahman.

“Zoe composed the score, but I asked her to retain the improvised jazz idiom. It was a massive ask to then find someone who could play that way for an hour and a half, but Sarah Alexander [who also plays several roles in the show] does it wonderfully and audiences really love it. Live music elevates what you’re watching and adds to the enjoyment.”

Delighted to be sharing the joy by taking Charlie & Stan on a national tour, Paul and the cast are especially looking forward to playing Cornwall. Not least for the Minack Theatre’s superbly apt backdrop.

“Charlie & Stan is set on an ocean liner and of course the Minack Theatre is right by the ocean, so it’s the perfect setting.”

Choosing to make the show the same length as Chaplin’s famous silent movies, Paul is confident that Charlie & Stan offers a fabulous antidote to the doom and gloom of recent times.

“After the terrible time we’ve been through it’s so funny, so uplifting and so poignant. It’s a beautiful eighty minutes of entertainment that I think will really connect with people and chime with the times.”

Certainly a night of carefree fun that can be shared with the whole family is a dreamy prospect. And as Charlie himself said: ‘Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease from pain.’

And there’s no need to trouble our overstretched NHS for this particular tonic. Just call the box office and you’ll be laughing. Literally.

 

Vicky Edwards interviews Paul Hunter, writer and director of CHARLIE & STAN at the Minack Theatre

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