Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Hard Times

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 16 May

Northern Broadsides have a winning way with their adaptations of now classic plays and novels. The latest is Deborah McAndrew’s version of Dickens’ Hard Times.

The 1854 original was an indictment of the soulless factory system which blighted so much of recently industrialised England, the less-than-caring entrepreneurs it produced and the mind-numbing routines of rote-learning education and repetitive work.

Into Coketown, dominated by self-made factory owner and banker Josiah Bounderby (a magnificent performance by Howard Chadwick which deservedly takes centre stage), comes Mr Sleary (Paul Barnhill)’s Circus. It’s arrival is particularly resented by retired wholesaler Thomas Gradgrind (Andrew Price).

Price gives a well thought-out characterisation of the man who has founded a school and educated his two children in the service of pure utilitarianism. In their different ways, both young Tom (Perry Moore) and Louisa (Vanessa Schofield) rebel.

The catalyst comes when young Cecilia Jupe, pet name Sissy (Suzanne Ahmet) is sent to the school by her clown father. Ahmet captures Sissy’s dilemmas, torn between the apparent freedom of the circus – which itself requires discipline but carries insecurity – and the stability offered by the Gradgrind household.

Any Dickens story has a supporting cast of grotesques and devious-doers. Here we meet ailing Mrs Gradgrind (Claire Storey), fallen-on-hard-times Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper (Victoria Brazier) and Mrs Pegler (Storey again), all of whom want more from the men of their acquaintance than they receive.

On the make in very different ways are bored society man Mr Harthouse and snooping bank employee Bitzer (a fine double by Darren Kuppan). Virtue is personified by mill-hand Stephen Blackpool (Anthony Hunt) and his platonic love Rachael (Brazier).

Louisa is lusted after by Bounderby as well as Harthouse, and Schofield gives us a portrait of a young woman stifled between duty and a scarcely comprehended yearning for a wider life – of the mind if not the body.  As Moore shows, Tom is oblivious to anything but his own selfish wants, including alcohol and money.

Conrad Nelson’s direction is fast-moving and his score evokes the place and the period; the musical director is Rebekah Hughes. Designer Dawn Allsopp seconds them with a set which allows seamless movement between locations, well lit by Mark Howland.

There are a couple of stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels currently on tour. If you can only see one – then go for Hard Times. This version brings characters which may b unfamiliar, even formulaic to full three-dimensional life. After all, Dickens wrote a paon to the power of imagination as well as a cracking good story.

Four and a half-star rating.

Hard Times continues at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 19 May with matinées on 17 and 19 May.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Great Expectations

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 March

Plays and novels both tell us stories, though in different ways. The crucial thing for any adapter of a novel as a play is to be faithful to the sense of the source. S/he can use the novel’s dialogue to reinforce authenticity, but what to do with extended passages of description and lengthy recounting of events passed?

Ken Bentley’s version of Dickens’ Great Expectations for Tilted Wig in Sophie Boyce-Couzens production captures the atmosphere very well – with considerable aid from designers James Turner (set and costumes), and Richard Williamson (lighting). Ollie King’s music is appropriate and atmospheric.

Where adaptation and theatricality let the audience down are just those narrative passages; some seem interminable. The cast of eight, all with two exceptions playing several rôles, does its best to give them variety, but cannot help that overall feeling of sag.

Séan Aydon makes a credible Pip, giving us all the lad’s rough edges as he fumbles his way through to apparent fortune and maturity. Nichola McAuliffe’s Miss Haversham is a scintillation of white tatters, combining the pathos of the jilted woman’s dementia with an aura of sinister manipulation.

Two of the nicest people to whom Dickens and Bentley introduce us are blacksmith Joe Gargery and lawyer’s clerk Wemmick. Edward Ferrow does them proud. Both Eliza Collings’ Biddy and James Camp’s Herbert Pocket offer well-rounded portraits of simple goodness and honesty.

Daniel Goode’s Magwich is a properly frightening creation as is James Dinsmore’s Jaggers. Isla Carter doubles Molly, the murderess who Jaggers assists to cheat the gallows and Estella, that dangerous star flaring so brightly in both Pip’s and Miss Haversham’s colliding worlds.

Perhaps too many of us know Great Expectations too well; it has been dramatised and filmed many times. Dickens was persuaded to change the ending, potentially to satisfy his readers who would have originally read the novel in weekly installments. I’m not sure that these second thoughts were better ones; Bentley missed a trick here.

Four star rating.

Great Expectations runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St edmunds until 10 March with matinées on 7 and 10 March. The national tour includes the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 19 and 24 March.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

A Christmas Carol

reviewed at Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds on 7 December

There ar as many different ways of staging Dickens’ seasonal story as there are twists and turns in the plot. Spinning Wheel Theatre does it with just three actors, imaginative use of puppetry and lighting effects by Becca Gibbs and director Amy Wylie’s respect for the text of the tale.

Antony Eden plays Scrooge as a man in middle-age, his revelling in the power which hoarded money and the death of his business partner Jacob Marley gives him is almost orgasmic . Alice Osmanski takes on the women’s roles and a couple of masculine ones while Samuel Norris is Scrooge’s light-hearted nephew and clerk Bob Cratchit. Scrooge’s first employer Mr Fezziwig and the Cratchit children are all neat little puppets.

The essence of the story comes from the spirits conjured up by Marley’s chain-laden ghost to emphasise to Scrooge how his greed has brought his present isolation on him and to warn of his future. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a mist of shimmering gauze with softly-lit eyes, symbolising Scrooge’s sister Fan and this lost love Belle.

A coat-hangered scarlet dressing-gown, topped with a matching fez, stands for the jollity of Christmas Present. An eyeless black shroud denotes Christmas Yet To Come when an unrepentent Scrooge is forced to face the robbery of his corpse and ill-attended burial.

Norris is on stage throughout, and gives an assured performance which allows the audience to understand as well as to dislike the man portrayed. Both Osmanski and Eden move seamlessly from one characterisation to another and carry conviction as the story unfolds.

Realism is as much a matter of the audience’s imagination – and at the Moyses Hall it faced the actors on three sides – as it is of heard words and displayed actions. This simplified but inventive staging works with Dickens and not against him, seamlessly joining the 19th with the 21 st centuries.

Four and a half-star rating.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Moyses Hall, Bury St Edmunds until 9 December and then tours village halls across East Anglia until 23 December with a performance at the John Peel Arts Centre, Stowmarket on 22 December.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Family & children's shows, Opera, Plays

The Old Curiosity Shop

reviewed at the Southwold Arts Centre on 27 October

Common Ground’s autumn production now launched on its East Anglian tour is an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. A cast of five, all of whom sing and play musical instruments, take us through the story of Little Nell and her grandfather as they flee London and the nefarious designs of Daniel Quilp.

The adaptation is by Julian Harries and Pat Whymark (who has also composed the music which is such a major part of the production. The effect is, I would imagine, close to that produced by one of the small-scale touring companies which plied the various East Anglian circuits in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is in some measure a ballad opera, in the style of The Beggar’s Opera or Black-Eyed Susan. Two numbers stand out – “The fair orphan maid” in the first half and “The turning of the tide” towards the end of the second act. All the cast take several roles, including drag versions of Kit Nubbles’ mother, the sadistic Miss Brass and the waxworks proprietor Mrs Jarley.

The one woman in the cast is Eloise Kay, who takes on Nell (her age updated from the original “not quite fourteen”), the downtrodden Mrs Quilp and the Brass household drudge eventually nicknamed “the marchioness”. Quilp and the mysterious Single Gentleman makes an interesting doubling, as does pliable lawyer Mr Brass and Nell’s devoted but gambling-addicted grandfather.

Harries, Joe Leat, Tristan Teller and Ivan Wilkinson there for play all the male and the afore-mentioned female ones in a production in which Whymark  takes Dickens’ story seriously as well as briskly while allowing space for character development. Notably these include Kit and Dick Swiveller. The Punch and Judy show is a delight – that’s the way to do it!

Four star rating.

The Od Curiosity Shop tours East Anglia until 25 November, including the Corn Hall, Diss (28 October), the Jubilee Centre, Mildenhall (30 October), the John Peel Centre, Stowmarket (2 November), The Cut, Halesworth (3 November), the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge (4 November), the John Mills Theatre, Ipswich (6 and 7 November), the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (between 9 and 11 November, with a matinée on 11 November), the Headgate Theatre, Colchester (13 November), the Wingfield Barns (22 November) and the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh (24 November).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Music Music theatre & Opera, Plays, Reviews 2017

Dickens Abridged

(reviewed at the Westacre Theatre, West Acre on 18 September)

A spin-off from the original Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) company, is on the road with Adam Long’s take on Charles Dickens. It encompasses in 90 minutes the novelist’s fast literary output as well as his somewhat disjointed life. It’s fair to describe Dickens Abridged as a musical, though Long’s clever use of projections might also quality it as a multi-media experience.

Whatever its artistic category, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp through mid-19th century fiction. With the aid of a guitar apiece, quick costume (and gender) changes and a nice balance of fact with comedic elaboration, the four-strong cast take us from Dickens’ own fraught childhood, through marriage, success, 10-strong fatherhood to his late romance with the actress Ellen Ternan and the physical crumbling partly occasioned by his dramatic recounting of Nancy’s murder from Oliver Twist.

Some of the novels are dismissed in four-line jingles while others are afforded a slightly more extended – if still elliptical – treatment. Great Expectations (you’ve never seen Miss Haversham’s immolation staged quite like this), A Tale of Two Cities with an applauded guillotine scene and a romp through A Christmas Carol which had Cratchit and Scrooge as overcome by laughter (aka corpsing) as the audience.

An apocryphal encounter at Dickens’ graveside between Ternan and the discarded Catherine Dickens née Hogarth works very well to demonstrate that Dickens the writer may be a national treasure but Dickens the man was of more tarnished metal. The projections include photographs and engravings as well as story-boards to fix our attention and remind us of the realities of 19th century London.

Martin Sarreal makes Catherine sympathetic as well as revelling in Agnes Wickfield’s virginal simplicity, such a contrast to Matthew Hendrickson’s lapdog-clutching Dora (Hendrickson is also Miss Haversham). Matt Bateman plays Dickens, as well as some of his creations and Andrew Gallo takes on many of the male fictional characters derived from Dickens’ own story as well as from his fertile imagination.

Dickens Abridged runs at the Westacre Theatre until 20 September. It can also be seen at the Arts Centre, Hatfield University (19 October) and at the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (20 October), Harlow Playhouse (21 October), The Cut, Halesworth (22 October) The Norwich Playhouse (2-3 November), the Hertford Theatre (6 November), the Arts Centre, Hemel Hempstead (24-25 November) and the Maltings, Ely (28 November) as part of a national tour.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015