Charlie Bicknell was very fortunate to get work as an actress immediately after graduation. She had a role as a prostitute in East Enders and it began a period of type casting she can laugh about now. ‘Drug addicts, prostitutes, characters with eating disorders—you name it. The press were always trying to uncover my dark side, but disappointingly, I was just an ordinary middle class girl’. Charlie came firmly into the public eye playing the fantastically flawed Delilah in the BBC 2 series This Life in the 1990’s and from there worked as an actress for the National Theatre.
‘I was very naive and would phone big castings and persuade them I would be perfect for the part. It was an approach I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, but it did get me noticed.’ She played Scout in Ben Elton’s Popcorn to great acclaim and loved being in a West End production. ‘I was young, single and child-free’, she says, ‘which is really the only way you can cope with the hours and workload’.
After her first child, Cosmo, was born, she continued to tour and act in various productions, with the baby in tow. ‘It was ridiculously stressful’, she recalls, ‘I ended up in a constant state of anxiety and permanently on the verge of a panic attack’.
It was clear that she had to change her work direction and, as many mothers before her will testify, needed something on her own terms. For Charlie, cabaret felt like the natural choice. She has a dark sense of humour and an ability to explore difficult emotions through her work. She takes her audience to unexpected places using her voice, wit, physicality and intelligence. An element of surprise is central to her work and her rebellious joie de vivre gets everyone wondering just how and when they became so buttoned up.
‘I love the process of making a show—the research and collecting of material.’ She revels in finding songs with a story or performance element and cites Jaques Brel as a great influence on her. ‘Brel is arguably the master of the form’ she says. He wrote reflective, theatrical songs that continue to be a huge influence on contemporary performers (including David Bowie and Leonard Cohen). She is also a huge fan of Tim Minchin and his irreverent approach to musical comedy.
It takes around two or three months to put a show together. ‘I spend a lot of time rehearsing’, she says. ‘I put a lot of effort in, get insomnia and then end up only performing it once or twice’. Charlie also writes her own songs and material, as well as subverting well-known songs. She has worked with the same pianist for 25 years. ‘David Harrod is a fantastic musician. He knows me (and my material), so well he can predict where I am going with a song or performance. There have been times when my voice has gone and he is able to pick it up and carry on without the audience noticing’.
Her latest offering is her Christmas show Defrosted, with the tag line expect the unexpected and embrace your inner Tinkerbell. ‘The show is a skit on Frozen’ she says, ‘but it is definitely NOT for children’. For example, typical of Charlie’s wicked sense of humour, the original song Do You Want To Build a Snowman? has been transfigured into Do You Want To Do Some Snow, Man? The big number Let it Go has been rewritten with co-performer and opera singer Louise Innes in mind. ‘It has become about a frustrated opera singer who wants to be in a West End show’, she says.
Described as a jolly Christmas caper, the show also features a 6’3” drummer boy and a very special version of Santa Claus is Coming To Town. ‘I didn’t even change the lyrics to that one’, she says, ‘but it is amazing what a change of emphasis can do. It becomes funny because it is so wrong’. Defrosted promises a riotous start to the festive season with new numbers and what Charlie describes as a ‘random element’. It also features one of her trademark aerial numbers.
Charlie is an expert with aerial silks and describes how hard it is to sing and perform at the same time. ‘People think that doing the splits on the silks is the difficult bit, but staying upright is much harder’, she says. Working on silks requires a high degree of flexibility and strength and Charlie mentions how impressed she is with some of her students. ‘I started teaching aerial silks when we moved to Dorset, mainly because I wanted people to play with, but I’ve been amazed at how popular it has become’ she says.
She works with both adults and children. ‘The children are great, but working with adults is really exciting, as silks are the most difficult of the circus disciplines’. One of her students described working with silks as being like a child again, swinging from a tree. Charlie obviously enjoys bringing out this child like freedom. ‘There is a tremendous pleasure in teaching’ she says.
Another string to Charlie’s bow is her private work. ‘I love doing private parties’. Charlie performs at parties for significant birthdays or large-scale corporate events and tailor makes the show around the client and the occasion. She has a very impressive list of former patrons, including the Duke and Duchess of Kent and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Talking to Charlie Bicknell it becomes abundantly clear that she is far from an ordinary middle class girl and richly deserves the Sunday Times description of her as ‘a red hot mamma from the English shires’. Miss her show at your peril.