(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.