Review: Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Having started out with Shakespeare, then moved into other classic literary adaptations, and even dabbled a couple of times in comedy, Arrows & Traps have proved over the last few years there’s little they can’t do. But it’s arguably in the bringing to life of lesser known historical figures that the company and writer/director Ross McGregor have truly found their spiritual home.

Of course it doesn’t feel quite accurate to describe Charlie Chaplin – subject of their latest piece – as a lesser known figure; there can’t be many people who don’t know his name. I will admit, however, that going in I knew very little about the man behind the tramp… and now I really want to know more.

Photo credit: Davor@OcularCreative

Raised in Kennington in the late 19th century by an alcoholic father and a devoted mother, both themselves veterans of the stage, Chaplin was a precocious child who always seemed destined to be a performer. But even after achieving worldwide stardom in Hollywood, he remained troubled – caught between the boy he once was, the actor he wished to be, and the beloved character the world saw.

This struggle is portrayed exquisitely in the production through the trademark Arrows use of different timelines, but also, uniquely, in the splitting of Chaplin’s character into two roles. Conor Moss plays Charlie the man, fighting to retain his identity in the all-consuming wake of Lucy Ioannou’s silent Chaplin the tramp. The tension builds slowly; initially the two work seamlessly as a unit, with Moss providing the voice to Ioannou’s actions as she transforms little by little into a role we all recognise. It’s only in Act 2 that they begin to move in different directions, culminating in a stunning sequence in which Moss battles desperately to free himself of Chaplin’s trademark hat. (Hat tip at this point to Clown Director Stephen Sobal.)

Always a wonderfully expressive performer, in this production Lucy Ioannou steps it up a gear, capturing not only every Chaplin mannerism, but also the audience’s undivided attention any time she steps on stage… and like Chaplin himself, she does it all without saying a single word. It’s a brilliant performance, but by no means overshadows the rest of the ensemble, who all excel – though I must give a special mention to Clare Aster, who broke my heart numerous times as Charlie’s mother Hannah. Abandoned by her husband, mourning the loss of her singing career, and struggling to raise her son on a pittance, she’s the true sad clown of the story.

Photo credit: Davor@OcularCreative

The movement sequences that Arrows fans have come to know and love are very much front and centre in this production, and if anything take on even greater significance given the silent movie theme. These scenes are not just there as filler; they’re as integral to the storytelling as any other scene – and as always, they’re beautifully choreographed and performed, with a modern twist in the choices of music that brings them bang up to date.

The play is – as ever – incredibly well written, skilfully weaving timelines and plot threads together, but in Chaplin, fittingly, it’s not so much the words as the performances that lift the show to a whole new level. If you’ve ever wondered how this particular legend was born, this play offers a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly poignant way to find out.

Chaplin is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 22nd February.

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