Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp is a truly wonderful piece of work by writer-director Ross McGregor. This new play tells of Chaplin’s early years with ‘a drunken sot’ estranged father and a loving mother who would try her hand at literally anything to put food in her sons’ bellies, writes Michael Holland.
Backed up with a simple set that doubled as a room in a house in SE London and Hollywood studios, scenes between Chaplin’s early, poverty-stricken existence and his eventual multi-millionaire lifestyle were interlocked and played out together. And that is important here because we see Charlie’s childhood, often consisting of his mother Hannah deciding whether to pay the rent or eat, juxtaposed with Chaplin importing apples from another state into California because he preferred the taste. The experiences of struggle and deprivation in his young years informed his adult life when, even when he was rich and ‘the most famous man in the world’, he knew how much every one of his actors and employees were earning, and where every penny was going. In fact, Charlie was so careful with money he had saved up enough of his own to escape the restrictive studio contracts and make his own films. A venture unheard of at that time.
Hannah Chaplin, who sometimes did a turn on the music hall stage, would sing and tell Charlie stories; she would teach him how to do impressions of neighbours. In turn, these skills would be used to create his Little Tramp character, who would always be looking out for the underdog in the numerous Chaplin films. We see the child learning how to get a laugh, a smile and a few pennies out of people; we see the genius in the child that would prove effective later on. We were spectators to scenes in his formative years that audiences later watched as scenes in his films.
The script and direction is marvellous and the cast grab it with both hands to make this show a must-see, especially as Charlie is a local boy. And standing out in that production was Lucy Ioannou as the young Charlie and The Tramp. Her performance was exquisite. She drew emotions from all there just as Chaplin himself did, with just a look, or the shapes she created. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
Amazingly, she did not speak one word throughout the play. She was truly a silent actor, using just her face and body to say all that was needed to be said in a tale of sadness, tragedy and coming to terms with yourself.
Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp is on at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DHuntil 22nd February 2020 at 7.30pm. Admission: £16, £13 conc. Phone: 0333 666 3366 (£1.75 fee for phone bookings only)