Chaplin, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★½

As one of the silent movie era’s biggest stars, Charlie Chaplin managed to combine comic clowning with an eye for visually emotive storytelling like no other. This new musical looks at the actor’s early years in Hollywood, as well as looking back into his childhood learning his craft on the stages of London’s music halls while his impoverished family life forced them to place themselves at the mercy of the workhouse.

Much is made of the young Chaplin’s close relationship with his mother, Hannah (Rachael Wood), who takes on most of the singing chores in this musical. And Wood is very good with what she is given, whether belting out a series of eleven o’clock numbers or mugging her way through a mock Vaudevillian number as she attempts to revive her musical hall career in a last-ditch effort to save her family from destitution.

Unfortunately, the composition of the songs relies too much on repetition of lyric for any of the numbers to sustain an interest. Even the most initially interesting of musical theatre numbers begins to pall by the third, or even fourth, identical chorus. And between songs, there’s not enough variety of either pace or performer to inspire. The cast, though, all double up as musicians, providing piano and string accompaniments to each number that are performed well enough to help compensate for the material’s lack of pace.

Not that problems with pace are confined to the music – the long stretches of dialogue do their best to stifle any sense of momentum that threatens to emerge. One bright spot occurs as the adult Chaplin (Bryan Hodgson) enters Hollywood for the first time, finding himself entranced with actress Mabel Normand, whose brisk attitude to quick takes is hilarious precisely because it’s so fast compared to the snail’s pace of the rest of the show. Emma Whittaker’s Normand remains a breath of fresh air throughout as she gains the directorial stature that Chaplin craves for himself, causing the pair to come into conflict.

That’s partly down to the chemistry she has with Hodgson’s Chaplin, who himself is the most endearing and engaging part of the whole piece. Hodgson gets all the mannerisms and clowning delivery that made Chaplin’s performances so imitably memorable. As his Chaplin discovers his character of ‘The Tramp’, combining his skills of acting and clowning with memories of his own childhood in abject poverty, a play which seems determined to pull itself down into mediocrity suddenly begins to spark into life. Unfortunately, while the emphasis on Chaplin’s back story is a welcome context for the Hollywood performer’s choices, there is not enough of it – and again, is let down by pacing issues (in a scene by scene re-enactment of The Kid, for example) or in the repetition of slapstick elements which, given a little more variety, could have seen Hodgson expand his thoroughly enjoyable performance all the more.

Steven Arnold struggles at times to play the Keystone Studios boss Mack Sennett, with a portrayal that relies on a stetson rather than a great accent to portray the American, although he is clearly more comfortable as Charlie’s older brother, Sydney. It’s a role that pops up throughout thanks to the show’s non-linear approach to storytelling, as does Helena Gullan as the largely mute young Charlie (and, later, as Jackie Coogan, who played The Kid in the 1921 film of the same name).

What one is left with, though, is the desire to see more of Chaplin’s Hollywood life, which was hardly short of incident on or off stage, and the greater amount of stage time that would afford Hodgson’s portrayal. As it is, Charlie Chaplin risks becoming a supporting player in his own life story.