Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 12 July
, 2007

Peter Hall opens his company’s annual summer season in Bath this year with one of the classic names, but a novelist rather than a playwright. Moreover, the title Little Nell is a deliberate feint; this is not an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop but an account of Charles Dickens’s passion for the actress Ellen Ternan. When they met in 1857 he was aged 45, she 17; already estranged from his wife, Dickens set up a second home with Nelly and the affair ended only with his death 13 years later.

Dickens was not only the greatest writer of stories in the English language, but a compelling stage performer of his own works. Given the verve and vigour of both prose and performance, it is apt that Simon Gray’s stage play should in places be somewhat hokey. In adapting Claire Tomalin’s biography, The Invisible Woman, he uses the framing device of an imaginary meeting in 1923 between Ternan’s son by a subsequent marriage and Dickens’s lawyer son Sir Henry. We are treated to one of the finest examples of “whoops, exposition” writing, as information is conveyed by having one character tell the other something they both know perfectly well: “Your father, George Robinson, was a headmaster.” Lighting switches the focus between “present” and “past” scenes without actors leaving the stage; at one point Gray and Hall cheekily require Michael Pennington as Dickens and Loo Brealey as Nelly to freeze in a passionate horizontal clinch, which is subsequently implied to be the occasion of her defloration.

George Robinson (played by Edward Bennett) has more than a little about him of Chekhov’s schoolmaster Kulygin in Three Sisters: determinedly devoted, ostensibly innocent of other matters whose shadow lies across him. We hear a wonderful euphemism employed when he falls into what the long-suffering Nelly refers to as “one of your unhappinesses”. The climactic scene, in which Dickens and Nelly argue fiercely before his final, fatal stroke, rises at moments to almost Dickensian levels of melodrama. However, like his subject, Gray “buys” this intensity by getting it to pay off dramatically and emotionally.

Comparatively speaking, such an 85-minute biographical play is a brief sketch, so we never fully decide whether Nelly’s attitudes sincerely change over time or whether she has always engaged in the fabulism that led her to knock a decade off her age to Robinson. Most oppressive to her is the sense of taking second place to Dickens’s reputation, in the form of his relentless schedule of public readings and also evidenced when they were in a train derailment years earlier, with Dickens ignoring her and her injured mother in order to be seen tending to the more grievously hurt. Brealey deals with these complexities of character well, although she may be a little too shy of playing large. Pennington gives full rein to the more bravura moments of Dickens, yet is not afraid to commit to the embarrassment of playing middle-aged infatuation; some of the character’s rhapsodies on his little Nell are downright disturbing, as if what Dickens was seeking was sexual communion with his own hyper-sentimentalised fictional creation. Barry Stanton and Tim Pigott-Smith get the most out of the slightly stilted scenes between Sir Henry Dickens and Geoffrey Robinson. What a world of unspoken so-English understanding is contained in the simple exchange: “I keep a second-hand bookshop. In Slough.” – “Ah.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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