Among them were two young, unknown, actors. Their names were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
The pair shared a cabin on their voyage and then spent nearly two years together touring North America as part of Fred Karno’s famous troupe. Laurel then returned home, later finding success with Oliver Hardy, and within five years Chaplin became one of the most famous people in the world.
This intriguing, yet little known, chapter in comedy history was the inspiration behind a new stage show – The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel – which is currently on a tour of the UK and heads to Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre early next month.
It’s been created by innovative theatre company Told by an Idiot following the pair on their trip to America, skipping back and forward through time as it delves into their lives using this voyage as the jumping off point. “We didn’t want to do a bio-drama so we’ve created something that’s more fantastical”, says writer and director Paul Hunter.
There is no dialogue in the production which instead blends slapstick with music, featuring a score composed by award-winning Zoe Rahman.
Hunter is keen to point out, though, that it isn’t some kind of avant-garde mime performance. “We didn’t want to just recreate the silent movie on stage, but to try and explore and open up our theatrical version of that,” he says.
“There was only one Charlie and there was only one Stan. Why try to recreate them? You’ll only ever be a 𝕡𝕠𝕠𝕣 𝕚𝕞𝕚𝕥𝕒𝕥𝕚𝕠𝕟. What interested me was if we could find someone with their spirit who allows the audience to get drawn in.”
The two titans of comedy came from very different backgrounds. Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston, in Cumbria, and came from an acting family – his father was a theatre manager and his mother an actress.
Charlie Chaplin’s childhood, on the other hand, was a harrowing one. “Chaplin’s father died from drink at the age of 34 and his mother was put in an asylum, and both he and his brother were twice sent to the workhouse,” says Hunter. “It’s amazing he survived, let alone go on to achieve everything he did.”
Both men performed in Yorkshire during their youth, and in Laurel’s case he had close ties with the county – several of his relatives, including his grandparents, lived in Dewsbury.
In fact they both appeared several times in the West Yorkshire mill town.
Chaplin appeared at the Hippodrome Theatre, along with his older brother, Sydney, and at the Empire Theatre. This was in 1903 when Chaplin was still in short trousers and appearing as a page to Sherlock Holmes in a play about the famous detective. It was a part he played with aplomb according to the Dewsbury Reporter.
He returned a few years later with Casey’s Circus, along with a young Stan Laurel.
Chaplin found salvation through vaudeville. “He joined Fred Karno’s troupe, which was one of the best around. He became its established star and his particular schtick was playing aristocratic drunks. Stan then joined them and one of his jobs was to understudy Chaplin.”
According to Hunter, Laurel was a star in the making. He got his big chance when Chaplin fell out with Karno and refused to perform.
“Stan came on for Chaplin who wasn’t happy with the material and there in the front row was Chaplin.”
When he saw how well Laurel performed in his place, Chaplin returned the next day.
This chapter in their lives is something Laurel enthused about later in his life.
“Chaplin was slightly older than Laurel and we know that Stan adored him and talked about being his understudy. But in his detailed autobiography, Chaplin never mentions him by name,” says Hunter.
The American tour made a mark on both men and shaped their careers. “Stan became homesick and left and Chaplin got a telegram asking him to go to California where he became this great movie pioneer. Stan returned later and met his soulmate Oliver Hardy.”
All three men went on to enjoy fame and fortune and their comedy has stood the test of time.
“There was something wonderfully universal about Laurel and Hardy that everyone could relate to. Samuel Beckett even said they were his heroes.
“Charlie Chaplin was extraordinary, too. Within five years or so of going to America he was the most famous person on the planet and the Little Tramp character he created championed the dispossessed everywhere and still enthralls audiences today.”
And now this new show pays homage to two of these much-loved legends.
“It’s important to entertain people and make them laugh. That’s what Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel did so brilliantly and that’s what we’ve tried to do, too.”