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Dance is an extraordinary medium. It is simultaneously mysterious in not being self-evidently understandable, and remarkably egalitarian because of its universal expression. A well-crafted dance communicates a great deal, even if the receiver is not sure what it all means.
Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp, the latest production from Arrows and Traps Theatre Company, is not a ballet or a musical but a straight play. It tells the story of Charles Chaplin from his childhood in Victorian London to a key point in his Hollywood career in the late 1920s. Yet it is also a dance, a dance of ideas that flow through movement and then flow further, further and further.
Writer-director Ross McGregor crafts a tale that is witty and amusing while also being tragic and desperately sad. McGregor’s sublime choreography is mixed with deeply human characters, artistic obsession competing with financial reality and layperson perspectives. The show features some incredible physical performances, which are appropriate given the subject matter of one of the world’s most famous physical actors. Yet Birth of a Tramp also depicts Chaplin’s background as a stage actor, his desires to play Hamlet and Tamburlaine conflicting with his talent for dumb show. Several sequences in the play could be out of music hall, a Chaplin film or a brilliantly orchestrated farce. Audience members will laugh at the uproarious comedy and also marvel at the dazzling choreography.
The conceit of choreography and dance runs throughout the play, as actors play multiple roles and often convey different characters predominantly through movement. Chaplin himself is played by two actors, Conor Moss as Charlie and Lucy Ioannou as the young Charlie and also as the Tramp. Moss provides vocals throughout but Ioannou is completely silent, conveying Charlie’s evolution of physical performance from childhood to global star. The two performers deliver an ongoing dance of pratfalls, tumbles and gymnastics, including a repeated but never overdone gag with a chair. There is also a heartbreaking moment involving a hat stand, where Ioannou imbues inanimate objects with tactile life, expressing incredible misery and isolation. For his own part, Moss later has the most compelling wrestling match with a bowler hat that you are ever likely to see.
The interplay between the two Charlies works both as flashback and as communication between different personae, as the Tramp grows into Charlie’s alter ego. Echoing Arrows and Traps’ previous production of The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, Birth of a Tramp explores issues of duality, knowing oneself and accepting past selves and mistakes. All the performances are laser etched, from Laurel Marks’ Virginia Cherrill fiddling nervously with her skirt (a gesture that opens and closes the play) to mock punches that progress through performers. Birth of a Tramp is an enveloping portrait of a famous but not necessarily understood artist, and it is a glorious dance of creativity, melancholia, family and the precious power of expression.