Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Marley and E


Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017


Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.


E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Inexplicable Elephant


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017


First version of the classic seasonal tale I’m seeing this year, this version’s staged by Bilston Operatic Company.  Oddly, the programme doesn’t credit any writers or composers, not even Charles Dickens.  A bit of research reveals the score is by the great Alan Menken.  I would never have guessed – it’s hardly his best work.

It’s a rather sanitised, musical version with samey songs and everything happening at the same pace, but the show is not without its merits.  There is a strong central performance from Nicholas Sullivan as the miserly Scrooge; reminiscent at first of the Child Catcher, he becomes more expressive and lively as the story unfolds.  After a seemingly interminable opening number, things ironically come to life with the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Tim Jones in a spirited performance, flying high over a chorus of zombies…)

Lydia Tidmarsh sings well as the Ghost of Christmas Past – she deserves a more supernatural entrance rather than just strolling out from behind Scrooge’s bed.  After the impressive Marley, the arrival of the other three ghosts is underplayed.

Jacob Kohli is in excellent voice as the Ghost of Christmas Present but his song becomes a weird production number in which the Victorian aesthetic is elbowed in favour of sequins, shorter skirts and tap shoes.  It is here we see an inexplicable elephant, also in a skirt.  WHY?  I can’t think for the life of me.  There is a nod to Dickens’s socialist agenda with an appearance by Ignorance and Want – sadly still rife in Tory Britain.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from a blind beggar in a hooded cloak to a kind of exotic, acrobatic performer, all veils and sequins, like a belly dancer getting married.  Again I ask WHY?  Imogen Hall is undoubtedly a lovely mover but this interpretation robs the role of the terror it must strike into Scrooge’s withered heart.

There is clearly no money in the Cratchit household for Tiny Tim to have singing lessons but Harry Lewis performs the role with such gusto, he wins us over.  Confidence is half the battle.

There is some nice character work from Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns as the Fezziwigs and an underused Sarah Houghton as Mrs Mops.

Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort but the crowd scenes lack focus – all the more important when your chorus is so populous.  On the whole though, the germ of Dickens’s perennial morality tale comes through and events reach their sentimental but satisfying conclusion in a production that tries hard, means well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

bilston carol


Let’s Twist Again


Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017


There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.


Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Like The Dickens


Crescent Theatre,  Birmingham, Friday 9th December, 2016


Every year I see at least one show based on the quintessential Christmas story, some of them better than others.  I am happy to report this new adaptation by Alan K Marshall is definitely one of the better ones.  Making judicious use of Dickens’s words, the script captures the spirit of the book, which, at heart, is a ghost story as much as it is social commentary.  The story of the redemption of one man still has the power to move, when handled properly, and, sad to relate, the indictment of society and its treatment of the poor and needy is all too relevant almost 200 years later.

Andrew Lowrie delivers Scrooge’s grumpiness, his sour humour and his fear, as the miser goes on his spiritual journey.  His delirious joy in the final scenes is marvellous – Scrooge has rocketed to the other end of the spectrum.  Other standout performances include Nicholas Brady, a handsome and convivial Fred, Scrooge’s nephew; Chris Collett as Jacob Marley – in one of the show’s scariest moments, he makes a dramatic entrance; and Tony Daniels’s Bob Cratchit grieving over Tiny Tim is heartrending.  Standout scenes include the opportunists selling off Scrooge’s effects, played to perfection by Charwoman (Catherine Kelly – who also gives a lively performance as Fred’s Mrs), Laundress (Judy O’Dowd) and Old Joe (Ivor Williams); and the entrances of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Bob Martin) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are impressive – Production values are high; the team have gone all-out to make the most of their resources to create some ‘wow’ moments.

Kenny Holmes’s lighting design is especially effective, ranging from dim pools of Victorian candlelight to the more dazzling special effects that give the supernatural events such impact.  Dan O’Neill’s set serves as exterior and interior for all the scenes, complemented by fly-ins and roll-ins.  The action is continuous and fluid.  Alan K Marshall, directing his own script, wisely uses action for storytelling as much as Dickens’s words – wordless moments are equally as revealing of character as lines of dialogue.  He handles crowd scenes well and delivers a couple of surprises along the way.   Ghostly animation, projected across the walls, adds to the atmosphere.

Jennet Marshall and Stewart Snape’s costumes are spot on, depicting the period as well as a kind of Christmas-card Victoriana, as characters’ colourful outfits contrast with Scrooge’s dour appearance and the general darkness of the age.

Music in the form of classical arrangements of carols works better in some scenes than others.  At times, I find it too grandiose for the on-stage action: the dance at the Fezziwigs’, for example, could do with being lighter and sparer, more folksy.  A moment when a voice offstage sings The First Noel unaccompanied while the grieving Cratchits traipse across the scene is all the more powerful, demonstrating that sometimes less is more.

Overall this is a stately production with some strong ideas that make it a fresh but faithful version of a story that still speaks to us today.  A warning against hardening our hearts against our fellow man and also of the dangers of ignorance could not be more timely in this small-minded, inward-looking, ‘post-truth’ age.


Bah, humbug! Bob Cratchit (Tony Daniels) and Scrooge (Andrew Lowrie) Photo: Graeme Braidwood




Execution is Everything


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 20th October, 2016


Mike Poulton’s masterful adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic cracks along at a fair pace, distilling the novel into a couple of hours’ traffic on the stage.  It’s a powerful piece of storytelling.  Domestic scenes are interspersed with vignettes of violence as the mob takes over Paris and wreaks vengeance on the aristocracy.  The French Revolution is the backdrop and the antagonist in this story of love and sacrifice.

Jacob Ifan is Charles Darnay who, despite having renounced his inherited title, finds himself in shtuck with the French tribunal.  Ifan is handsome and reserved – except when he is talking politics and then the character’s passion comes to the fore.  By contrast, Joseph Timms’s Sydney Carton is a livelier presence, a spirited nihilist whose swagger only serves to advertise his lack of self-esteem.  Timms is charismatic, commanding our attention.  Carton boxes clever to save Darnay’s neck on more than one occasion.  (Carton…boxes…? Suit yourself!)

Both men are in love with Lucie Manette (an elegantly emotional Shanaya Rafaat) – and external events conspire to bring the triangle to a devastating denouement.

There is sterling support from Patrick Romer as Dr Manette, Michael Garner as faithful Mr Lorry, and Jonathan Dryden Taylor amuses as servant/bodyguard Jerry, while Harry Attwell makes an impression as Stryver The ensemble is afforded many chances for some character cameos: Sue Wallace’s Pamela Keating and Rebecca Birch’s Jenny Herring stick in the mind – Dickens certainly knew how to give voice to the lower orders. Villain of the piece, Madame Defarge (Noa Bodner) personifies the kind of thinking that urges Brexit voting idiots to denounce all opposition as traitors.  The red of her skirt is a rare splash of colour in Ruth Hall’s muted costume palette, suggesting the bloodshed of those terrible times.

Mike Britton’s set evokes the Ancien Régime in decline, and Paul Keogan’s lighting intensifies the drama, contrasting dimness with moments of sharpness.  James Dacre directs, using contrasts for clarity and building a sense of a world in turmoil encroaching on individual lives.  The treatment of the poor – as typified here by Christopher Hunter’s cruel marquis – is facing resurgence in Britain today as the ruling classes demonise those less fortunate.  The shadow of the guillotine looms large in this story – perhaps we are overdue our own revolution.  Nobility, says the play, is nothing to do with title, wealth or privilege but is rather something within us – well, some of us.

To cap it all, Rachel Portman’s original score is striking, stirring, melancholic and tragic.

It all adds up to an excellent evening, an absorbing, gripping and moving production of which the Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Touring Consortium Theatre Company should be very proud.

Great stuff and – if I might use the term – well executed!


A tale of two, sitting: Joseph Timms, Rebecca Birch and Jacob Ifan

Bells and Whistles


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 13th February, 2014


The best format for ghost stories is the written word.  Just the reader alone with the story – no one can scare you like you can scare yourself, and writers like M R James and Charles Dickens know how to tickle your imagination until you get a shiver down your spine.

Next best is tales around a campfire – a good storyteller can convey atmosphere and suspense and make you jump.  Long-running hits like The Woman In Black and, recently returned for its second West End run, the brilliant Ghost Stories, fully exploit this.  These shows employ aspects of narrative theatre that address the audience’s imagination directly.  And very scary they are too.

Middle Ground Theatre Company does not take this narrative approach, opting instead for naturalism and keeping the audience safely behind the fourth wall.  In doing so, the company makes a rod for its own back.  Unlike film, where you can use close-ups and changing points of view, the stage is a much harder place on which to create tension and atmosphere.  It doesn’t help that one of the stories in this double bill relies on atmosphere more than anything for its chills and surprises.

Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad tells of a Professor Parkins (Jack Shepherd) who checks into a hotel on a storm-battered East coast, out of season to play some golf and to root around in a local archaeological site.  He buddies up with Colonel Wilson (Terrence Hardiman) with whom he discusses his scepticism with regard to all things supernatural.  He has found an old whistle, the blowing of which seems to conjure the wind.  The whistle bears an inscription, “Who is it who is coming?” and the scene is set for some creepy palaver with moving bedclothes, knocking doors and a bush tapping incessantly on the windowpane.  Eventually, the prof is reduced to a sobbing, terrified mess.  And that’s it.  People expecting explanations are left decidedly nonplussed.  I think Margaret May Hobbs’s adaptation hits all the plot points of the M R James story but, given the absence of a resolution, a narrative theatre approach might engage the audience better.  The special effects are rather good – apart from the face of the ghost projected large enough to fill the backdrop.  Otherwise, the stage technology conspires to give some spine-tingling moments – despite one woman in the audience laughing her face off somewhat inappropriately.

The Signalman fares better.  Shepherd in the title role is paired with Hardiman again and tells him tales of railway disasters and spooky comings and goings.  This story-telling sets us up nicely for what transpires and there is a proper surprise denouement that rounds it off neatly.  A more conventional ghost story, then, and Francis Evelyn’s adaptation of Dickens works a good deal better than the James.

Shepherd is very good as the eccentric professor who loses his wits and equally solid as the signalman.  Hardiman is spot on as the bluff old colonel and as the inquisitive traveller.  There is excellent support from Dicken Ashworth as the hotel boss and a railway inspector.  With a lesser cast, these dramatisations would fall completely flat.

Director and designer Michael Lunney goes all out to create a sense of period, place and atmosphere, although I would say his set for the hotel in Whistle is a little too crowded.  The set for Signalman is impressive and Bob Hodges’s excellent sound designs do most of the work in creating mood in both pieces, but on the whole I came away thinking less would be considerably more.  There are too many ‘bells and whistles’ in addition to those that feature in the stories. A darkened space with someone holding a torch under his chin is as good a starting place as any – anything else is gravy.


Pickwick From A Distance


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 4th December, 2013

An ambitious project: to bring Charles Dickens’s rambling, episodic novel (originally a serial) to the stage.  But it has been done magnificently with regard to Nicholas Nickleby, so why not give it a go?  Unfortunately, The Pickwick Papers lacks the scale and the scope of that other book and, most crucially, it lacks drama.  So, what we get with Nicola Boyce’s adaptation is a series of scenes of little consequence involving characters that veer towards caricature.

Ian Dickens (some relation?) directs a cast of faces familiar from his other productions and pretty much gives them an easy ride.  Rebecca Wheatley gives a star turn as Mrs Leo Hunter performing a poem set to music about an ‘expiring frog’ – this characterisation contrasts effectively with her other role as the shy Miss Wardle.  David Callister is enjoyable as conman Jingle, inhabiting the costume and the vernacular with ease.  Poppy Meadows is underused – very funny as Mrs Bardell.  Dean Gaffney is well within his comfort zone as affable manservant Sam Weller – a pity he doesn’t get to flex the comedic muscle we saw earlier this year in Murder in Play.  Daniel Robinson and Scott Grey are the effeminate, giggling, shrieking ninnies Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass – they get the best scene in terms of action when poor Winkle finds himself embroiled in a duel thanks to the misconduct of Callister’s Jingle.

On the whole, the cast is very good and looks good in the costumes.  I think part of the problem is the set.  Most of the action takes place on a rostrum but this is set so far upstage it adds further distance between the actors and the audience beyond that provided by the fourth wall.  It is very difficult for them to engage with us and us with them, being so far removed from each other – my seat was fifth row centre and I felt like I needed binoculars.  Often the stage is crowded with people with their backs to us, further shutting us out. A disembodied voice narrates passages to cover scene changes, keeping us at a distance yet again rather than addressing us directly.

Also, the running time is not borne out by the content.  The story, such as it is, is too flimsy to sustain interest for almost three hours.  I found my mind wandering, unable to focus on some of the verbiage – Pickwick, nicely played by John D Collins – is a garrulous old thing but the script is in need of editing.

What should be a delightful, diverting way to pass an evening, becomes something of an endurance test.  It’s like trying to have a five-course meal in a sweet-shop: delightful at first but ultimately unsatisfying and lacking in nutrients.