Chaplin

Book by Ernest Kinoy, Lyrics by Lee Goldsmith, Music by Roger Anderson
Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Spring Street Theatre

Simon Blackhall as Chaplin snr. (resurrected) Credit: Clive Barda

This Guildhall production is the London première of a show that was announced for Broadway in 1981. That production didn't happen, a more conventional Chaplin musical was in competition, but it was staged the following year and won awards in American regional theatre.

It carries the subtitle "A Memory as Entertainment". It is not a conventional biographical show. For a start it only takes us through the early part of Chaplin's life, up to his creation of his tramp character in 1915, and not always as it actually happened but with its Chaplin character himself demanding revisions to match the way he would prefer to remember it rather than the way it really was.

It is split into two halves, the first, English, act being present as a music hall bill complete with Charlie as Chairman, though the presentation is more Variety than Music Hall with a board announcing each new act. What we get is more a sequence of numbers and sketches relating to a moment in the lad's life than a dramatic narrative. In the second act, when he crosses to America, the style changes, influenced more by the style of the Mack Sennet movies of which he was soon the star.

Martin Connor's Guildhall production mounts it very stylishly in designs by Mark Bailey that make use of what look like of films of the time that mix through into painted cloths, and musical director Steven Edis gets great playing from the student band of a score that looks back to the music hall tradition. There are ballads and comic numbers, but the music never really carries one away on emotion and the book is so episodic that you don't get involved with the characters. That Charlie, nice kid though he starts out, once his heart has been supposedly broken, rejected by fifteen-year Hetty Kelly (Beatrice Walker), turns into a user of women doesn't exactly make us warm to him. Bill Deamer gives his chorus some very vigorous choreography but cockney foot-stamping can get monotonous, though things get much more fluid in the second act.

Hard-working Simon Blackhall plays both young Charles Chaplin and his father with the quickest of changes to pop off at the side of the stage as the older Charlie looking back the moment he comes off as whichever he's just been. He handles the pratfalls and a complicated coat gag with an aplomb that would do credit to an experienced trouper and though his voice has a rough edge (that is often quite appropriate) in some of the numbers he is at his best as a resurrected Chaplin Senior and in the father's savage "I Don't Like Kids", in which he is partnered by Kevin Phelan's Young Sydney Chaplin and James-Tobias Norrington as the child Charlie (also being played by Callun Quinnen).

Danielle Harrison as Charlie's mother, Helen Ramsorrun as his father's mistress and Katherine Rose Morley as Mabel Normand get brief opportunities to act as well as sing. Sion Alun Davies makes a lively chase-obsessed Sennet and Jherad Alleyne has his moment as the faun in a Chaplineque send up of L'Apres Midi but it is the little Child Charlie who steals the show.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton