STICK, BAGGY PANTS AND BOWLER: POLITICS AND EXILE
My Granny met young Charlie Chaplin once: he was at her father’s Theatre Royal Nottingham with Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds. That was before America, before the years of silent movie fame. And long before he scandalized conservative America with his courageous Hitler parody in The Great Dictator, and a speech on human brotherhood incautiously opening with the word “comrades!”. The actor protested that it was a small c he meant, and that being passionately anti-Nazi did not make him a Commie. But postwar America, paranoid in the J Edgar Hoover years, exiled him and his young wife Oona for the last 25 years of his life.
You will tramp across a lot of cobbles this Fringe before you see a finer performance – especially a static one – than James Bryce as the aged Chaplin remembering his long life of poverty, work, fame, love and exile. The Finnish director Sven Sid – and writers Christoffer Mellgren and Johan Storgård – draw from the Chaplin autobiography, and Bryce frames and narrates his memories from a bath-chair. Here is a man near death, haunted by memory and ghosts both benign and hostile. It is a remarksble performance, not least in the moments when the focus is off the old man and he watches – affectionate or pained – his life unreeling as Christopher Page plays his acrobatic urchin self.
It was a life started in grinding poverty on the edge of the workhouse, with a mother who succumbed to dementia: John Scougall plays the devoted, more level-headed brother Sidney who introduced him to the theatre. He came home; butold and young, the conflicted Chaplin stays driven by his mantra “Work, work, work, theres no better medicine!” as his track takes him to Mack Sennett’s Hollywood farce factory and beyond.
The director uses odd clips of real Chaplin film, but sparingly: the play rests on black-browed earnest young Page and the centreing, powerful Easter-Island statue profile of the old man, tended in intermittent moments of distress by his beloved young wife Oona in their Swiss exile. There is always a risk that a straight bio-play will feel formulaic: but the manic flawed determination and historic political conflict of the man carries it forward. The insecurity of being “depressed, disheartened, loved by everyone yet by no-one” may be a cliché: but, as the US press close in viciously on his love affairs and allegations of ‘un-American’ thinking, the tension here grows rather than ebbing. Sarah McCardie and Michelle Edwards play the various women strongly; Ross Dunsmore is both Karno and the rat-faced Hoover. And as the closing moment reminds us, on the sparely used screen, that it was 1970 before Hollywood restored Chaplin to the hall of fame, we see for a moment the face of the real man on that day.
And yes, the tears prick. No saint, but a grafter and a trouper, a man the century should remember.
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