Billed as ‘the greatest comedy duo that nearly was’, when Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel sailed off to New York seek their fortunes they had no idea of the iconic roles they would play in the world of entertainment.
Of course Charlie Chaplin went solo in the silent movie business, while Laurel met Oliver Hardy and formed one of the most memorable comic duos of all time.
But this aquatic and little known chapter of their lives is now being gloriously brought back to life by Told by an Idiot Theatre featuring Danielle Bird and Jerone Marsh-Reid who are loving every minute of the hilarious new comedy Charlie and Stan.
Co-produced with the Theatre Royal in Bath and Olivier and Tony Award-winning David Pugh, the actors were cast regardless of their race or sex to brilliant effect.
Jerone who plays Stan Laurel is delighted with his role and encourages the conversation around black acting. “I knew when I was given the part that it would be controversial and some people would disagree with that, but I’m happy to be part of that conversation,” he says.
“It’s a really fitting play to watch right now after we’ve all struggled with our own adversity during Covid, because it’s comic, emotional, escapist, nostalgic and musical”
“I was nervous about taking on the part of such an iconic white comedy great as a black man, but it’s about making a physical impression, and as soon as I got into rehearsals I knew why they had picked me because the part suits all my strengths.
“So the positive comments and feedback outweigh the negatives and the reviews and feedback have been great.
“It shows that the industry as a whole is moving forward, and if I can change people’s minds when they come to see Charlie and Stan then brilliant. It’s been a really liberating experience. I just want to own the part and I’m really proud to be in it.”
Danielle’s casting as a woman may also raise a few eyebrows amongst the traditionalists, but she says it’s more about channeling Chaplin’s characteristics and getting into character than anything else.
“It creates a distance which I think is healthy because it allows people to become immersed in the character rather than who’s playing him. This isn’t a biopic after all, it’s more physical theatre.”
Chaplin was born in Victorian London in abject poverty and Danielle says much of his comedy is based on putting on a brave face. “His whole little tramp persona is about being resourceful without sleep or food, wearing clothes that are too big for you and smiling in the face of adversity – hence the song ‘smile when your heart is breaking’. So I really enjoy the complexities of his character and the depths to him as a man” she says.
“For me it’s about how you present that character and finding his funny bones, not about being a woman. But I enjoy having that conversation because it opens it up and maybe there will be a little girl in the audience who realises that she can do that too, and for that I’m really proud.
“It’s also a really fitting play to watch right now after we’ve all struggled with our own adversity during Covid because it’s comic, emotional, escapist, nostalgic and musical.”
As Charlie and Stan were giants of the silent movie business, it seemed only fitting to continue this trend in the show, accompanied by a tinkly piano which takes you straight back to your childhood.
Across the road at The Burton Taylor Theatre Josephine is also playing all week, a new family-friendly play about 20th century campaigner, spy, actor and civil rights activist, Josephine Baker, to help address anti-racism and learning about diversity in schools.
Baker was a famous dancer and the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture. She aided the French Resistance during WWII, which earned her the Croix de Guerre and spoke at the infamous March on Washington in 1963, alongside Martin Luther King.
Writers of the play, Leona Allen and Jesse Briton said “When we stumbled across the story of Josephine Baker, we were amazed by two things: How could she have done so much? And how could we not have heard of her? We wrote Josephine to answer those questions and inspire a whole new generation to reimagine their relationship with the past.”
Charlie and Stan runs from Tuesday 5 – Saturday 9 October at Oxford Playhouse. Book at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/charlie-and-stan or ring 01865 305305.
Josephine runs at BT Studio from Tuesday 5 until Saturday 9 October: Book at or ring 01865 305305. Age 7+.https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/josephine