Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 8 April, 2010

The title is a deliberate pun, referring superficially to the atrocious command of English enjoyed by Hans Christian Andersen when he stayed for five weeks in 1857 with Charles Dickens and family at their Gad’s Hill home, but more thematically to the goings-on he observed there... or rather, largely failed to observe. In Sebastian Barry’s speculative drama, Andersen notices scarcely any of the tensions arising from Dickens’ dictatorial attitude towards his daughter Kate’s and son Walter’s futures and even the lovelessness of his own marriage: shortly after Andersen’s actual visit, Dickens separated from his wife Catherine, and indeed he is shown in the play meeting for the first time his future love, the young actress Ellen Ternan.
However, Barry’s title is also an unintentional misnomer. The one current in the house which he is shown acknowledging to any real extent, and even then without any knowledge as to its detail, is the one which buffets housemaid Aggie, about to be dismissed from service for falling pregnant (to Walter, although she never admits this). Aggie is not one of Andersen’s English; she is Irish, like Barry. The inclusion of an Irish dimension is certainly deliberate (the action is also punctuated by renditions of a number of Moore’s Irish Melodies); less so, I think, is the fact that in Barry’s text and Max Stafford-Clark’s production Aggie, played brightly by Lisa Kerr, emerges as the most rounded, human character of the lot.
Dickens himself, as presented by David Rintoul, is a figure of conflicting passions and passionlessness; so was the historical Dickens, but this does make it almost impossible to portray him credibly in any naturalistic drama. Niamh Cusack as Catherine is a watercolour saint, smiling through most of the vexations and occasionally protesting politely even as her domestic place is supplanted by her sister Georgie (Kathryn O’Reilly), scarcely a less anodyne figure here. Lorna Stuart gets a few moments of backbone as Kate, which amount to a few more than Alastair Mavor as Walter. And through all this Danny Sapani as Andersen has the thankless task of trying to suggest a character of passions for himself rather than simply being the bumbling, inarticulate alien. It all amounts to a fascinating subject treated far less than fascinatingly.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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