EFR - Reviews of Chaplin

Chaplin

Wed 30th July – Mon 25th August 2014

reviews

Isobel Cockerell

at 02:23 on 14th Aug 2014

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The story of Charlie Chaplin’s life is indeed a fascinating one. But whether it is carried adeptly by this play is questionable. The plot’s premise is the familiar trope of an old man looking over his life - except that this old man was a world famous performer from humble east-end roots.

Played by James Bryce, the Old Charlie remains onstage, wheelchair bound, for the entirety of the performance. He reminisces verbally occasionally, but for the most part he sits and watches the action of his own life. It’s an impressive feat of both stamina and character acting. The audience’s eyes intermittently flit to his face, which is always illuminated with whatever he is watching. His wonderful expressiveness does Chaplin himself a great honour. Indeed, when a clip of the real ‘old Charlie’ is shown at the end, the similarity between the two makes quite an impact.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Christopher Page, who plays the young Charlie. Page doesn’t quite capture Chaplin’s winsome grace and natural humour, and his portrayal is simply not convincing. For instance, Chaplin’s determination to work tirelessly – so aptly conveyed by Bryce – feels a little thin and insipid in Page’s case. His imitation of the famous Chaplin walk, meanwhile, falls flat compared to the real thing. It’s not a bad piece of acting in its own right, but the difficulty lies in the fact that his performance must inevitably be compared to that of one of the greatest comics of all time.

When not compared to Chaplin himself, the acting on the whole was of a pretty high level. Sarah McCardie really stood out as Charlie’s mother. She also played a pushy journalist, a bossy carer, and an airheaded Hollywood filmmaker, and carried off all roles with ease and panache.

The story itself was a fairly moving one, but its solemnity was never relieved by the dialogue and action of the play, or the humour of its protagonist. For a play about one of the funniest men of all time, it seemed a shame that the only real laughs to be had were from the short clips of genuine Chaplin silent film shown. In fact, the general feeling was one of lament that these were not longer, rather than of the hardships conveyed. Indeed, the show might have been a whole lot better and more evocative if we had all just sat down and watched a couple of Charlie Chaplin films.

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Ben Horton

at 09:27 on 14th Aug 2014

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Any fan of the iconic Tramp character of Charlie Chaplin should make it their business to see Sven Sid’s new production telling the story of the great comic’s rise and fall. Whilst this homage at times veers towards the over-indulgent, the love of Chaplin and his work infuses the show and makes for often compulsive viewing.

The play takes the audience through the entire life of Chaplin; starting with his tough upbringing in the slums of London; then onto his star-studded career and later controversies; and ending in contentment in Switzerland with his faithful wife Oona. The audience is accompanied by the older Chaplin (played by James Bryce) as the unfolding action follows the contours of his reminiscences, which he often pauses to comment on. Bryce is particularly impressive – perfectly shifting between delight and mourning in accordance with the events he witnesses. He also skilfully portrays the old man grappling with his inner demons of guilt and shame, especially with regard to his mother who is driven insane by poverty. Christopher Page plays the younger Chaplin depicted in the memories and his mimes and impressions are also a highlight.

The production suffers slightly from the need for the rest of the cast to play three or four supporting characters each. Although Sarah McCardie handles this well, providing a full array of differing characters throughout the show, you get the sense that some of the other characters are less comfortable shifting in and out of multiple personae. This effect could be reduced as some of the characters seem pretty obsolete and artificial, not least the role of J. Edgar Hoover as a sort of caricatured phantom haunting Chaplin’s thoughts. Clearly the presentation of communist witch hunts in the USA is an important and interesting theme, it just isn’t rendered very subtly here.

The decision to mix stage action with short clips from Chaplin’s films is really effective and for the most part so too is the inclusion of musical accompaniment written by Chaplin himself. This is tug-the-heart-strings stuff but it rarely becomes overwrought, with the exception of the very beginning when a near shouting James Bryce can only just be heard. This aside, the show is a safe bet or anyone interested in Chaplin’s life or work and who don’t mind the action verging onto the melodramatic side.

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