Chichester Festival Theatre
Opened 20 July, 2006

It might be tempting to suggest that this two-parter is some kind of easy option as part of artistic director Jonathan Church's project to keep Chichester afloat as a viable theatre. David Edgar's adaptation of Dickens' classic novel was so popular and successful on its original staging by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 that hoax letters began circulating to the effect that Trevor Nunn was planning to turn the RSC into the Royal Dickens Company. But a moment's thought should reveal how wrong-headed that assumption would be as regards this first major revival. It will almost certainly bring the crowds in, but such a vast production calls for a commensurately heavy budget; as a limited part of the theatre's summer season, it can buoy up box-office figures only so far. And, of course, it offers panoramic scope for artistic misjudgements.

In Church's and Philip Franks' production, however, no such clangers are dropped. The production bowls along as one always imagines Dickens should, as young Nicholas tries to provide for himself and his penniless family in a too often wicked world, from the brutality of the "schooling" offered at Dotheboys Hall via the affable Crummles company of strolling players to the vicious world of London finance personified by the stone-hearted Ralph Nickleby. Edgar's script offers so many scene-stealing opportunities that, even in such a large company, all who are so minded can stroll off with full theatrical swag-bags. A pell-mell five-minute "story so far" sequence at the beginning of Part Two is as much a bravura joke shared by cast and audience as it is a narrative recapitulation. However, everyone's Christmases have already come at once with the finale of Part One, in which the Crummles company present Romeo And Juliet rewritten (as was modish in the early 19th century) with a happy ending, as Paris revives proclaiming himself "Not dead so much as stunned" and so on.

The cast in fact numbers 23, two-thirds the size of the original RSC company. This adds to the pleasure, as one can spot (or imagine) thematic connections in actors' increased doubling of roles. Pip Donaghy, for instance, lands the two most hiss-worthy parts as thuggish schoolmaster Wackford Squeers and the loathsome Sir Mulberry Hawk, whilst Zoë Waites represents all of Nicholas's love interests both genuine and deluded, as Fanny Squeers, vampish thespian Miss Snevellicci and the virtuous but distressed Madeline Bray. Veronica Roberts plays two very differently domineering wives, Mrs Squeers and Mrs Crummles.

Of the principal actors, Daniel Weyman brings a wholesome if slightly minor-royal tabula rasa quality to Nicholas, and Hannah Yelland is similarly un-fleshed-out as his sister Kate. This, though, is principally Dickens' fault: his protagonists often feel more like ciphers than his incidental characters, and his female leads in particular tend towards the implausibly saintly. As the young siblings' nefarious uncle Ralph, Leigh Lawson supplies immense gravitas if rather less nuance. John Ramm bravely plays Ralph's still-uncorrupted clerk Newman Noggs as neurotic and distracted, so that his nobility must show through his conduct rather than his superficial personality. David Dawson is rather too obviously winsome and fluting-voiced as Nicholas's disabled charge Smike, but nevertheless more than one of my critical colleagues confessed to tears when he told his protector, "You are my home."

Simon Higlett's ramshackle portmanteau of a set offers maximum flexibility and general unspecific atmosphere, and at six and a half hours including three intervals, Church and Franks bring the action in a little more quickly than did Nunn. One of the highest practical accolades I can offer is that I realised during Part Two that I had stopped taking notes; I was simply caught up in the terrific storytelling, for which Dickens, Edgar and the directors must all take credit.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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