Working Like the Dickens


Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 15th November, 2011


Simon Callow performs dramatisations of two stories by Charles Dickens, portraying a different narrator for each tale and playing, or rather, suggesting all the other characters.  This is a one-man show, demanding on the performer and on the audience alike.  They are lengthy monologues and the Victorian London accents can be “wery” wearing on the ear.


But with Callow we are in a safe pair of hands.  Apparently effortlessly, he moves around the multi-purpose set – it suggests a bunco booth, the back of a cart, the boards of a stage, the dressing room, and so on – and recounts the stories with vim and vigour – sorry, wim and wigour.


The first half tells the story of sideshow attraction, Mr Chops the dwarf, as told by his former manager.  Chops wins a lottery ticket and attempts to get into ‘society’ but learns an expensive lesson, and returns to the sideshow to end his days performing his old act.  It’s a quirky tale, very funny in the telling, but on the whole I preferred the second half and the tale of “cheap jack” Doctor Marigold.  He narrates in the first person the story of his working life, travelling the country selling household items,  and his courtship and marriage to a woman who was possessed of a terrible temper.  They have a child, whom the wife abuses physically.  The child dies… So far, so Country & Western song.   Marigold rescues a deaf and dumb girl from a circus (this time the featured freak is a slow-witted giant), teaches her to read and eventually sees her married off and move to China… It’s melodramatic stuff and tugs shamelessly at the heartstrings.  Dickens was adept at manipulating his readers and this comes through in these “monodramatics”.  Callow keeps us on the right side of mawkish, which is probably the most remarkable aspect of the evening.  A less well-seasoned performer and a less assured directorial hand than Patrick Garland’s and the whole thing could easily become risible.  Callow plays the audience like a string section; the plays are sentimental tunes, but as Noel Coward observed in Private Lives, “Strange how potent cheap music is.”

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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