We all recognise the Charlie Chaplin of the silver screen with his signature moustache, bowler hat and waddle but who was Charles Chaplin, the man behind The Tramp? Chaplin tells the ultimate rags to riches American dream story as it follows the beloved actor’s incredibly trajectory from the slums of East London to Hollywood but finds a surprising amount of pain on the way.
Using Chaplin’s autobiography for the raw material, Christoffer Mellgren and Johan Storgard’s story takes an affectionate though occasionally overly sentimental look at the private life of an icon. Taking us right back to the beginning, Old Charlie (James Bryce) looks on with a twinkle behind the tears in his eyes as he remembers his mother, a depressed widow who did everything she could to make ends meet. Fears of separation and the workhouse loom over his childhood, and poverty is never very far away. When Charlie’s brother Sidney returns from sea with money and a plan to become an actor we instantly forgive him for leaving behind that gloomy world and his loving mum. Chaplin suggests that he never forgave himself, working obsessively to cure his broken heart, and ease the feelings of guilt and shame the abandonment caused.
Ace Productions’ condensed version, translated from the original Finnish play by Julian Garner, feels rushed at just 70 minutes long. Nevertheless, it’s a very touching show. Scenes from Chaplin’s superficial life of fame, parties, brothels and questionable dalliances with very young women are mingled with clips from his silent movies which become poignant when no one is laughing at them. Christopher Page’s Young Charlie is well-observed, capturing the characteristic gestures of the performer effortlessly. However, it is Bryce’s tender and open portrayal of wheelchair-bound Old Charlie, a star cast out of the limelight in a wave of unforgiving McCarthyism, who truly wins the hearts of the audience.
Moving and unexpected, Chaplin introduces us to a character few people really knew. This nostalgic production tugs the heartstrings but its tactical selection of the facts leaves the audience still searching for the whole picture. Stripping away the costume and the pratfalls lets us catch only a glimpse of the real Charlie – the one we see in a clip from the 44th Academy Awards where he sobs, overwhelmed, as he receives his Honorary Oscar aged 84 – and doesn’t quite do him justice.
Chaplin is at Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 25 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.