Charlie Chaplin is one of those actors that I thought I knew a bit about. I knew he was born and lived around the Elephant and Castle area – there used to be a pub named after him by the shopping centre. I also knew he was a star of many silent movies but fell out with Hollywood during the McCarthy era and moved to Switzerland. Of his life before fame, I knew nothing but thanks to the good folks at Arrows & Traps, and writer Ross McGregor, and their play Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp, at the Jack Studio Theatre, I now know a lot more than I did before.
The show starts in 1928 Hollywood where Charlie Chaplin (Conor Moss) is auditioning Virginia Cherrill (Laurel Marks), for the female lead in his next film. Cherrill has no real acting experience, but Charlie remembers her from a modelling shoot on Santa Monica beach. During the audition, Charlie’s brother, and business manager Sydney (Toby Wynn-Davies) comes in and berates him about the money he spent on a party scene in a film – complete with an expensive professional singer who is neither heard nor, apart from a leg, seen in the movie. Charlie explains his reasoning for hiring the singer and the two men start to reminisce about their childhood back in London. A childhood filled with poverty where mum, Hannah (Clare Aster) did whatever was needed to make ends meet, with no assistance from the boys’ father Charles Chaplin Sr (Benjamin Garrison). Theatre performers themselves, both the Chaplins seem, in their own way, to dote on young Charlie (Lucy Ioannou) Hannah, spoils him – often making personal sacrifices to ensure he has enough to eat – while Charles Senior, thinks his son is ready to follow him in treading the boards. Flitting between 1928 and various points in his life, the play traces Charlie’s journey from a poverty-stricken child, through the birth of ‘The Little Tramp’ to an icon in world cinema, where even those new-fangled talkies do not worry him.
Ross McGregor, who also directed Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp, has obviously put in a lot of research about Chaplin’s early life to give a really authentic feel to the story. He also really piqued my interest in Chaplin himself and I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon and evening on YouTube watching movies and clips of the ‘little tramp’ in action. This proved two things for me. First that the writing and acting were so good and second, that Lucy Ioannou had really brought Chaplin back to life. In an unusual twist, Lucy, as young Charlie, didn’t speak – Connor, as older Charlie, narrated the story – and everything that Charlie was feeling had to be conveyed by movement and facial expression. Just as it was in his films. Lucy really has got every aspect of Chaplin off pat and you can see the way that the Little Tramp comes into being as a fully-fledged person imbued with a childlike vision of the world.
Whilst all of the cast are excellent, the other stand-out member for me was Clare Aster as Charlie’s mum, Hannah. This was a superlative performance with real heart as Hannah goes from a happy, smiling woman welcoming the audience to a mother doing whatever it takes to support and protect her family, through to a woman suffering severe mental illness. Clare’s performance was so good and I had no trouble believing the lengths to which Hannah would go to look after Charlie.
All told, Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp really was excellent from start to the very powerful, and still relevant, ending. It is extremely well written, produced and acted and shines a welcome light on the life and, at times, the inner turmoil of one of the world’s most beloved entertainers.
Review by Terry Eastham
What a sad business, being funny Limelight (1952)
For over 100 years, Charlie Chaplin has been the world’s best-loved clown. His brilliant comic creation of “The Little Tramp” is the first and most recognisable cinematic icon in history. But his remarkable story of stardom and success has a darker side.
Raised in the horrific, grinding poverty of a Victorian slum, Charlie never knew the security of a stable family. Whilst his parents destroyed themselves with disastrous ambition and unshakeable vice, Charlie was thrown at the mercy of the workhouse. Desperate to escape his feral existence on the streets of South London, Charlie became captivated by the shining lights of music hall, and gradually began to see a way out.
Critically-acclaimed Arrows & Traps return with an examination of the relationship between experience and creativity, and invite you to discover how Chaplin spun personal tragedy into universal comedy, in a psychological exploration of one of the world’s most remarkable lives.
Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp Listings Information
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH
Box office: www.brockleyjack.co.uk or 0333 666 3366 (£1.75 fee for phone bookings only)
Dates: Tuesday 4 to Saturday 22 February 2020 at 7.30pm. (NO perfs: Sunday/Monday)