Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Bells and Whistles

CLASSIC GHOSTS

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.

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Pickwick From A Distance

THE PICKWICK PAPERS

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.

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Lacking in Spirit

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd December, 2013

 

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Dickens’s seasonal classic emphasises its own theatricality.  A chorus of spirits in Victorian garb – grubby and dark, unlike the picturesque variety you find on Christmas cards – decide to influence the affairs of mortals (a bit like the gods in Clash of the Titans) and they focus their endeavours on one Ebenezer Scrooge, the epitome of anti-Christmas feeling and misanthropy.  The spirits wheel on lampposts, doors and so on, calling for special effects to manipulate each scene.  In a way, this allows director Tessa Walker to be rather inventive and, neatly and cleverly, to convey scene changes and depict the more fantastical elements of the tale.

The trouble is this approach robs the story of spookiness and surprise.

Standing in as Scrooge, Jo Servi does a nice line in wide-eyed double-takes, and pent-up aggression to anyone who bids him a merry Christmas.  As the spirits show him the past and present, traces of old emotions leak out from his tight-lipped callousness – it’s not so much a change in the man as a rekindling of what is already there, what is in all of us to begin with: our common humanity.   Scrooge’s reawakening is a release of suppressed emotion and Servi carries it off well enough with a sprightly song-and dance number.

Marc Akinfolarin’s Jacob Marley intones a stark warning in a beautiful bass voice and there is a lot of energy provided by Roddy Peters as the antithesis to Scrooge, the permanently cheerful nephew Fred.

Jason Carr’s score is very reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, weaving in snatches of traditional carols in a rather discordant way.  As Scrooge thaws, the numbers become more melodic and somewhat more memorable.

Ti Green’s set – all bricks and floorboards with a false proscenium arch upstage – echoes the theatricality of the approach and suggests the dingy London streets.  I like the fact that it doesn’t change in line with Scrooge’s change of heart.  It’s the people, now all colourful and happy, that decorate this environment with Christmas cheer.

The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is an enormous rod puppet, a griffin spreading its tattered wings like a skeletal vulture.  It’s a striking image but it’s a cumbersome process getting it on and off and it lacks the humanity of the previous spectral visitors.  It’s like the carcass of a Christmas bird picked clean, a sign of austere times to come.  It’s handled very expressively but, like the rest of the production, it’s a little too pedestrian to ignite the imagination or elicit an emotional response.

The openly artificial approach, efficient and clever though it may be, doesn’t give us a single “how did they do that?” moment to surprise us or fill us with wonder.  Instead we get a workable, workday version of the well-known story, performed by a likeable and proficient company, but lacking in that special ingredient to touch us and warm our hearts.

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Going Bump in the Night

THE HAUNTING
Derby Theatre, Monday 26th November, 2012


Writer Hugh Janes has adapted ghost stories by Charles Dickens, resulting in a play that has a good deal in common with long-running West End hit, The Woman in Black. A young man is despatched to an isolated mansion for bureaucratic reasons and is disturbed by supernatural phenomena… Unlike its predecessor, The Haunting is more straightforward in its structure and approach and, thanks to Simon Scullion’s impressive, Victorian gothic set, has a more naturalistic feel. The atmosphere is perfect with mists and cobwebs and decay. Doors open and slam of their own accord. Books fly from shelves. There are plenty of ‘jump’ moments to rouse the audience and crank up the tension.

David Robb is splendid as the urbane, sardonic Lord Gray, a sceptic who is trying to sell off his late father’s estate, including his library of valuable books. There is a fey humour to his dismissals of the paranormal and he looks suitably dashing in a range of frockcoats and dressing gowns.

I didn’t take to his young counterpart in the same way. As the credulous book dealer, James Roache is togged up like Daniel Radcliffe in the film of The Woman in Black, but his delivery of most of his dialogue is off-putting; he attacks his lines like a barrister making courtroom revelations.

Where the play is let down is in some of the dialogue. At times they speak in descriptions, giving voice to passages from the Dickens original (“the house, pinched on all sides by the moor”) or spout the most florid lines (“I consider literature the buttress of pedantry”) that it is a good job the set and props are there to interrupt them before it all becomes too wordy and dense.

Director Hugh Wooldridge handles the atmosphere splendidly. All the old tricks in the book of old tricks are here. Drawn-out silences suddenly shattered by loud noises. Mists and shadows and things moving about. Disembodied voices and ghostly apparitions… And it all works very well. The mystery of the ghost story is gradually unravelled, and is not without surprises.

On the whole, this is an exercise in demonstrating the pleasure we take in being wound up and scared. It’s an intriguing little story, well-executed and presented. Special mention must go to Jonathan Suffolk’s sound design, which plays such an important role in putting us on edge. Well worth the trip, the production gives you that unique frisson of hundreds of people all being startled at once, and then gasping and laughing at what silly creatures we all are. You don’t get the same experience at the cinema.


Ebenezer Good

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 23rd November 2012

Director and dramatist Theresa Heskins adds her version of Dickens’s classic tale to the countless others that have gone before it. The story is so well-known there can be few who attend this production who have not already come across it in one form or another. Amazingly, this is not a drawback. You might think this is a matter of the telling rather than the tale, the way the story is told rather than the actual, familiar material, but both form and content are powerfully represented in this magical and affecting production.

As the New Vic’s resident artistic director, Heskins is in her element working in-the-round. She has adapted the story into a piece of narrative theatre, with cast members sharing the scene-setting descriptions, but she also uses those actors to supplement the scenery as physical objects themselves. This is stylish and fun, to be sure, but the approach also works as a metaphor for the way Ebenezer Scrooge treats people as objects, of his renouncement of their humanity.

The stage is kept busy with beggars, carol singers, revellers, children and all the rest of them, come and go, but the centre of attention is Paul Greenwood’s layered performance as Scrooge, the bitter, sarcastic curmudgeon who is reminded of his own humanity through memory and prophecy. When Jacob Marley steps up to where the door knocker is, it is Greenwood’s reaction that makes it work. We share his delight when he watches his nephew and guests enjoy parlour games. We feel his joy at waking up and realising he hasn’t missed Christmas Day… He is the focus of this production, reminding us that there is more to Scrooge than the stereotypical Grinch-like image.

The entire cast is a slick and well-rehearsed engine. Hannah Edwards makes a cheery and fresh-faced Ghost of Christmas Past, playfully taking Scrooge back to his childhood days in scenes I always find moving. Antony Jardine’s Ghost of Christmas Present is infectiously merry, in a larger-than-life laughing-out-loud performance that proves you don’t need to be padded up in order to represent ho-ho-ho jollity and good cheer. The Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come are a trio of eerie skeletal wraiths – the show uses puppetry sparingly but effectively; Tiny Tim is a little wooden boy, delicate and vulnerable, but denied any chance of mawkishness and sentimentality.

Bryn Holding as Nephew Fred has a hoot of a laugh that effuses bonhomie. Mark Donald appears as Young Scrooge, hardening his heart against the one girl that loves him – the error of Scrooge’s ways could not be made clearer. There is the imagery of being caught up in a web of his own creation, just as Marley is enchained by the selfishness he perpetrated in life. The folly of preferring money to people is all too prevalent in our day and age. Benevolence is not just for Christmas.

This is a magical, inventive production that allows the original story to have its impact all over again. I was in tears before the interval and infused with a rosy glow long after I left the auditorium. It is well worth the trip to Staffordshire. I hope more people will make the trip and enjoy the ride.


Glad Night With The Pips

GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 24th September, 2012

“It wasn’t what I expected,” said one woman as the audience filed out at the end. No, me neither. I found my expectations surpassed by Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel about social climbing.

It begins, not with the famous scene in the graveyard, but with the grown-up version of protagonist Pip (Paul Nivison) entering the rather grandiose set: the interior of a grand mansion, gone to rack and ruin. At its centre is a wedding cake. Pip is revisiting the place where his change of fortunes began. Implored by Estella (Grace Rowe) he summons up memories of his youth, conjuring up characters from his past. They appear through the walls, from behind picture frames and so on, their faces ghostly white, grotesque and exaggerated, distorted by the prism of memory.

And so, in Miss Havisham’s living room, the whole story is re-enacted. Adult Pip narrates a bit, but mostly stands by and watches. Young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davies in an engaging performance) suffers cruelty at the hands of his sister (a deliciously monstrous Isabelle Joss in a characterisation that would be at home in a Roald Dahl) and has his emotions toyed with by the haughty Estella. I needn’t summarise the plot, I feel, because the book is so well-known, and of course any adaptation will truncate or omit some events and characters.

This one is a delightfully gothic affair. A lot of money has been lavished on the decaying grandeur of Robin People’s magnificent set and the striking, almost circus-like costumes by Annie Gosney and Graham McLaren. Mr Wopsle sports a top hat that adds almost another yard to his height. The soldiers who recapture escaped convict Magwitch wear expressionless masks, dehumanising them. There is more than a little of the Tim Burton to the aesthetic. Nathan Guy struts and poses on the mantelpiece as Herbert Pocket, a colourful mixture of the Joker and the Penguin by way of the Mad Hatter. Everyone in Pip’s past is bedecked with cobwebs. The action and atmosphere are supported by an eerie, almost horror-movie score by Simon Slater.

The dazzling designs are more than matched by the quality of the performances. Jack Ellis certainly has the moves like Jaggers (sorry) and the marvellous Paula Wilcox is brittle and imperious as celebrate eccentric Miss Havisham, swanning around in her wedding dress. When she re-enacts the moment she heard she was jilted on her wedding day, Wilcox emits a heart-rending cry. This is melodrama but you can’t help being touched and chilled by it.

As convict Magwitch, Christopher Ellison (off of The Bill) storms it. With thankless dialogue that requires him to swap his Vs for Ws he portrays the wretched warmint wery well, imbuing the character with dignity and pathos. Ellison has never been better.

Director Graham McLaren uses the conventions of narrative and emblematic theatre to tell the classic story in a new way, making it fresh without messing about with the plot or the themes. Dickens would be heartened to find we are more civilised these days. We no longer send children (or anyone else) to the gallows. But he would share my dismay that the iniquities of society persist. The arrogance of the materially well-off (but poor in terms of humanity and compassion) is all too visible every time a government minister appears on the telly.


A Christmas Turkey

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Garrick Theatre, Lichfield, Thursday 29th December, 2011


Neither a pantomime nor a straight dramatisation of Charles Dickens’s classic story, this production has the air of having been written by alien robots trying to assimilate themselves into British culture. The only thing that doesn’t make an appearance along the way is a kitchen sink.

It begins with an overlong overture – when the music is pre-recorded we really don’t need to hear it at length. It was like being put on hold at Santa’s workshop. Then we were treated to an interminable medley of Christmas tunes as the characters filed on to introduce themselves. Two of them broke out into a spot of ice-skating. Another wheeled on a cart so that the three puppet pigs sitting on it could mouth along. Yet another brought on a box painted to look like a barrel organ, just so a raggedy monkey puppet could flail around. The Cratchit family children, all drawn from the local area, bounced in place for minutes on end – the stage was soon crammed with actors and some of the most amateurish choreography ever to grace the boards. But what really annoyed me in these opening moments, and was to continue to do so throughout the evening, was the mannered pronunciation of some of the characters, making them sound like Sybil Fawlty answering the telephone. This produced an amusing side-effect on the song lyrics. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmarse” for example.

Tiny Tim (an enthusiastic Alex Thompson-Carse) was taller and more robust than most of his siblings and had their share of stage presence too.

At long last, Scrooge (The Bill’s Graham Cole) made his first entrance. The audience didn’t know whether to applaud, boo and hiss, or cheer. Some of them did all three. Most of us sat in silence. Cole’s cantankerous miser was too affable from the outset, somewhat like Alexei Sayle impersonating Stephen Fry in a Jimmy Savile wig. He relished his nastier putdowns and spoke them with a twinkle in his eye. He may as well have held up a card at the end of each line, saying LOL. This meant, of course, his transformation to the world’s most sociable fellow, was lacking in impact – when we eventually got there. First there was an apparently endless stream of turgid songs and dances to get through.

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Ian Adams) first appears as a door knocker. This was potentially a very effective moment but it was thrown away. Scrooge took it in his stride and went indoors. The ghost then appeared projected on the mirror above the fireplace before manifesting himself in person to Scrooge, who invited him to sit down, merely to allow the use of a chair levitating trick you can see coming a mile off. Marley won’t go without a song and dance, culminating in a mock-Thriller routine by sundry others in Hallowe’en masks and a sudden modern turn to the backing track. There is even the Countdown clock thrown into the mix. It is as startling as it is inappropriate and unnecessary. After this, Scrooge mutters “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” and beds down in his four-poster.

The Ghost Of Christmas Past (Ian Adams) shows up, a butch drag act, like Julie Goodyear via Royston Vasey. She takes Scrooge back to his schooldays and an ill-advised comedy routine cobbled together from Christmas cracker jokes. This is the production’s biggest problem: the jarring changes in tone and intent. By all means stage a knockabout comical version, corny or otherwise (the wonderful Oddsocks Productions did a few years ago and it was one of the funniest shows I have ever seen) or go for a more traditional mix of the sentimental and the supernatural, but don’t try and do both. If you try to give us everything, we come away with nothing.

Scrooge as a young man is played by Owain Williams who is given the chance to belt out a couple of numbers. This is all very impressive – he can sing and emote – but the sudden improvement in quality is as though someone has switched the channel. It doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of this ramshackle romp. His rendition of “Mother of Mine” in the graveyard was a bizarre moment, not without skill, it has to be said, but by this point I was getting hysterical from shock. I hope Mr Williams’s next job is in a more coherent production that allows him to shine.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ian Adams) casts an imposing but jovial figure until you realise that beneath his flowing robe, he’s standing on a flight of stairs. It would have been better if he’d been on stilts, I thought at this point. No, scratch that. It would have been better if he’d been on fire. He shed his voluminous robe to reveal a Santa outfit, came down the stairs and performed a workmanlike tap dance with some of the chorines. This was village hall material at best.

Scrooge’s housekeeper, in a future Christmas, takes Scrooge’s bedsheets and curtains to sell to a fence. Cue Fagin with a handcart, singing “My Yiddishe Momma”. The pair strike up a bargain before launching into an ear-blistering rendition of “Easy Street” from Annie. Three letters sprang to mind: Two effs and an ess.

Graham Cole kept his energy levels up, battling valiantly against the backing track. His best lines were those lifted directly from Dickens. Given better direction from Ian Adams and a more consistent script by Ian Adams, Mr Cole could have had us in the palm of his hands.

Are you detecting a pattern here, the same name cropping up? Not only did Mr Adams portray all the ghosts, he wrote and directed the bloody thing. A Jack of all trades, and a Renaissance man of none. How Ernie Wise of him! But what was unWise was the lack of consistency in approach and execution. Tiny Tim was robbed of his final moment and most famous line. He didn’t even get a solo bow, poor mite. Instead we get a bit of narration by Scrooge during a blackout, ending with “It’s Chrissssstmaaaas” Noddy Holder style, before the cast swan on in contemporary, holiday-camp-entertainers-in- tinsel get-up for an extended medley of yet more Christmas songs, complete with snow dropping on the stalls like so much turkey shit. They were reluctant to let us leave and I’ve never fought my way to the exit with more fervour. I apologise to any of the good citizens of Lichfield who may have received my elbow in their eye during my one-man stampede.