‘Laurel and Chaplin: Before They Were Famous’ (theSpaceTriplex, until AUG 13)

“One of the best examples of audience participation in the known universe.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars (Outstanding)

In his 300-page autobiography, Charlie Chaplin never mentions Stan Laurel. Why not? Both were Brits who built their careers up from vaudeville and into the early era of moving pictures thus achieving immortality. They are iconic figures about whom so much is known, except that they started their journies to the top together, in the same company. What went wrong? Why did they never speak again?

We enter to find ourselves greeted by the show’s author, THE Jon Conway, introducing his latest script which is born of his quest to chart the section of Chaplin’s biography marked “here there be dragons.” Jon is a legendary producer, a veteran of campaigns in the West End, the silver screen, and BIG arena shows such as ‘Elf’ the supersized Christmas spectacular based on the Will Ferrell movie. Jon has an instinctive, professional’s feel for the pioneering age of Holywood when everything was an innovation. What follows is 45mins of laugh-out-loud knockabout with just enough tragedy to tug the heartstrings and add a bittersweet note to the custard pie mix hurtling towards your face.

Two on-screen legends merit two legendary performances. As Stan Laurel, Matt Knight shows off some of the party tricks that wowed the judges on BBC TV’s ‘Let It Shine’ where if memory serves (or rather if The Current Mrs Dan’s memory serves) he reached the semi-finals. There’s a depth to his portrait work on Laurel, a melancholy and personal uncertainty, the shadows of the limelight. Matt is a physical wonderworker, but he’s also a chuffing good character actor and one to watch in the coming years.

Watching Jordan (son of Jon) Conway play Chaplin is like having high tea at the Ritz astride a Harley-Davidson FXDR 114 (0-60 in approximately 2.5 seconds). The first thing I do when I’m back outside is message Angela Pearson of the ‘Talking Bottom’ podcast to ask if anyone is filming a Rik Mayall biopic and in need of a star. Jordan shares Mayall’s timing, his precision, his manic determination simply to be as funny as he can possibly be – in fact, funnier than anyone else could possibly be. Jordan matches Matt’s physicality (although no one could equal it). Their on-stage chemistry is as lively as things would get if you were caught deliberately puncturing the bouncy castle at Vinny Jones’ kid’s birthday party.

As Chaplin’s troubled mother, Hannah, Kelly Banlaki brings the drama of alcohol dependency and incarceration. Kelly and Jordan share some really lovely moments as the proud mother gazing with a broken heart at the superstar apple of her eye. Hannah the most complex and contradictory of the several roles Kelly plays. As the nurse – I dread to think where they bought that THAT costume – as the nurse she is [For your own protection, the remainder of this sentence has been automatically deleted by a woke algorithm.]

The supporting cast of Joel Hatton as, among others, musical hall impresario Fred Karno as well as Joe Speare as our narrator, Wilbur, provide more flying buttressing than is to be found on a medieval cathedral. It’s essential because this is a jack-in-the-box script ready to jump out of its tiny time slot and make some serious mischief. There’s a bit with a cucumber, Joel and Jordan that doesn’t leave a dry seat in the house. For me, and for everyone else, the absolute highlight of the night’s madcappery was the demonstration of how simplistic was the process of making movies back in the day – when pictures were shot in less time than it takes Howard Berg to get through Terry Pratchett’s ‘Moving Pictures’ cover to cover. This was done via one of the best examples of audience participation in the known universe.

This little run in theSpaceTriplex – Big is obviously a teaser for the full-length mega hit coming our way. It leaves us wanting more and asking a fair few questions like why Joe isn’t also appearing in an EdFringe showcase of Nat King Cole classics doing duets with Richard Shelton as Sinatra. BTW Joe’s got a chuffing superb singing voice, did I not mention that already?

Come for the names you know. Stay for brilliant performances by names you’re about to know. Leave wanting more. Get your Bermans and Nathans tailcoats on and go see this.


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