BAC's plan to augment its three performance spaces with additional entertainments in its café goes awry with this uncertain production by Fair Play Theatre Company of Charles Dickens's early, quasi-journalistic pieces.
Part of the problem lies in the original material: the very fact that this is early Dickens (he was 22 or 23 when most of these sketches were written) means that he had yet to develop both the skills and the confidence which pervade his major works. Here he is intent on making sure his humour is grasped, and his sentimentality is not yet expressed with the mastery which makes it almost palatable in his novels. Part lies in the adaptation, by journalist Robert Butler, who fails to impose an overall shape on the pieces he has chosen to translate to the stage. The first sketch, A Passage In The Life Of Mr Watkins Tottle, is preceded by information regarding its original publication and fee (none); this we may expect to become a convention, but it immediately vanishes, cropping up again only to sustain a brief authorial preface to a later sketch. The sketches are wildly disparate both in size (the Tottle sketch lasts over 30 minutes, a couple of others barely three) and in mood, and are presented on a fairly bald take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Director Graham Sinclair and the company of five put their weight behind the show, but never quite get it up to speed; the early promise of Mr Tottle's frustrations is marred as the audience faces subsequent frustrations of its own. Rather than go down the path of David Edgar's stage Nicholas Nickleby, one member of the company narrates throughout, taking only minor parts in the action until the closing A Visit To Newgate in which he is rewarded by having the opportunity to fling himself around and gesticulate wildly as a condemned prisoner, all the while narrating about himself in the third person. Some reward.
True, this is intended to be café theatre, a polished divertissement rather than high drama. Nevertheless, it lacks the focus necessary to hold up even such a modest entertainment.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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