Onto a small stage, a jagged piece of wall with a gothic window to one side, and a raised, curtained platform on the other, walks Charles Dickens. He tells us – in his own voice, lifted virtually verbatim from the opening of The Old Curiosity Shop – of his nightly walks through the London streets, searching equally for inspiration for his work and distraction from his life. We see him meet little Nell (a heartrendingly sweet and nicely poised performance from Eloise Kay), and guide her back to her grandfather’s strange shop: and at once, our story has begun. This is a novel about journeying: about a constantly evolving, unsettled present stumbling towards an uncertain future. As Dickens sends Nell on her perilous journey through life, the strong, multi-talented cast of Common Ground tackle the many characters she meets with wit, skill, and wonderful music – plus a proper Punch and Judy show along the way.
Pat Whymark and Julian Harries’ brilliant reduction of The Old Curiosity Shop is faithful to Dickens in both word and deed, with characters often speaking the exact words Dickens gave them in perfectly-chosen Victorian costumes: beggars look like beggars, ladies are resplendent in silk and lace, bringing the very fabric of Dickens’ acutely observed world almost within our touch. Julian Harries’ clever, sparse set design produces recognisably Victorian scenery from a mere handful of props: so, a bench in front of curtains becomes a damask sofa with a lace throw, but a hoop of bunting transforms it into the front of Mrs Jarley’s caravan; mist billows here, smoke billows there, and the window can keep characters indoors – or outside. The scene doesn’t ever halt the action to change, but morphs continually alongside the cast to push the plot into the new, ever inventive directions Dickens dictates. The play flows dynamically under Pat Whymark’s eagle-eyed direction, fast paced but sincere, glorying in humourous moments but equally unshy of the cruelty which underpins so much of Dickens’ complicated world.
Pat Whymark’s music begins with a bedrock soundscape of strings, played with sensitive control throughout the production by Alfie Harries, who sits at one side of the stage to accompany the action with elegant, atmospheric notes from his double bass – and later surprises us with a voice of folk-clear beauty, which I would definitely have liked to have heard more. Whymark’s music grows throughout the story, with most of the cast picking up instruments at different times to accompany each other in song (violins, guitars, a squeezebox, the list goes on). Everyone on stage sings with resonant charm, creating rich, intense harmonies in full chorus, or poignant character moments when solo, Whymark’s melodies always feeling inspired by English folk traditions. As the evening unfolds, the many talents being displayed on stage just keep astonishing us. Above all, everyone rises to the significant challenge of acting so many different characters with calm charisma and satisfyingly detailed focus.
Ivan Wilkinson is terrifyingly good as Quilp, brilliantly psychotic as the brutal, wheeler-dealing dwarf who keeps the world at bay, and provokes much of the story, with his evil threats and menaces. Wilkinson transitions easily into the generous, honest Single Gentleman via a pleasing cameo as the kind, pretentious Mrs Jarley. Joe Leat is probably finest in his incarnation as the ice-hearted dominatrix Sally Brass, but all his characters – the bullied thug Tom Scott, the callous Fred, and the warm-hearted Irishman Trotters – come across vividly. Tristan Teller comes into his own in a triumphant portrayal of the wastrel Dick Swiveller, often channelling Withnail as he portrays a pleasure-seeking, exquisite, surprisingly decent man, who finds new moral courage as his destiny crumbles. Teller’s notable skill with a violin is a joy, and his sweet, vulnerable Kit grows on you, as well as the smaller roles of Codlin and George. Eloise Kay’s fine Nell is rivalled by her fragile Mrs Quilp and anguished, rough diamond Marchioness, delivering each of these important young girls with passionate care. Julian Harries’ self-deluded Grandfather is pleasing, but entirely outshone by his superbly unctuous, self-serving and ultimately traitorous Samson Brass, Harries’ portrayal positively gleaming with joy in this gem of a character.
Perhaps the greatest gift of the whole production is that Dickens comes across as a clear-eyed storyteller with no compunction in displaying the vileness of humanity – and yet with his own idealism nevertheless untarnished by experience. When I got home, I couldn’t wait to get the novel out.
Reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on Monday 6 November
Presented by Common Ground Theatre Company
Touring across a range of venues across East Anglia until 25th November: full details here