Don’t worry, this is indeed a show about Charlie Chaplin. It consists of a man reciting a poorly-written biography of Charlie Chaplin. Start worrying.
I desperately wanted to like this show. The man had a fascinating life – Chaplin was a paragon of the American dream and a victim of the American cycle of boom and bust. He arrived as a penniless immigrant and became a silver screen legend, then lost everything after being blacklisted during the communist paranoia of the late 1940s. Chaplin’s life and work are ripe for adaptation, but The Hat, the Cane, the Moustache has none of Chaplin’s charm or exquisite pathos. While there are a few fleeting bright spots, this show is mostly an exercise in boredom. Chaplin’s films may be old and silent, but they are never boring.
A young actor, (Clive Elkington), is in his dressing room preparing to go onstage as his idol. As he slowly dons Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp costume, Elkington recounts a watered-down version of Chaplin’s life and provides some vague attempts at insight into what made Chaplin so talented and beloved. The problem isn’t Elkington – though he lacks energy he is a likeable enough performer and clearly loves Chaplin – but what he’s given to work with. The script, written by Chaplin historian JeTamme Derouet, is bland, structureless and repetitive. The effect is of someone reciting the script of a half-hearted television documentary. I started counting the number of times Chaplin was referred to as ‘the little immigrant’ or his smile was called a ‘toothy grin.’ The narrative wanders aimlessly. One minute we are hearing about Chaplin’s struggles with the Committee for Un-American Activities, the next we are learning, for the second time, that Chaplin was a notorious ladies’ man. Derouet tries to say something meaningful about Chaplin’s Little Tramp get-up, but dissolves into unanswered rhetorical questions. The biography creaks to a halt with the earth-shattering conclusion that Chaplin really loved his wife.
Elkington manages to provide a little humour as he takes on various talking-head personas in the style of a Ken Burns documentary. His imitations of aging silent-film actresses commenting on Chaplin are spot-on. When he is finally fully dressed as the Little Tramp, Elkington unfortunately attempts to ‘do’ Chaplin – the walk, the swinging cane and so forth. Chaplin is so iconic that he is inimitable. Even the best Chaplin imitations only highlight the differences between the impersonator and the genuine article.
At times, clips from Chaplin’s films play on a small screen. I only wish these projections could have been longer and more frequent. Chaplin moved an audience from laughter to tears in an instant. He expressed the full range of human emotion with a single movement. Charlie Chaplin’s life was full of drama and Old Hollywood intrigue, but sadly The Hat, the Cane, the Moustache just doesn’t deliver.