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Tuesday 11th December 2007
Christmas Theatre Review | NICHOLAS NICKLEBY | CFT @ Gielgud Theatre [transfer]

Production (transfer): The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
Playwright: Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar
Producer: Chichester Festival Theatre, Duncan C Weldon & Paul Elliott
Venue: Gielgud Theatre
Address: Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR
Box Office: +44(0)870 890 1110
Dates: 5 December 2007 - 27 January 2008
Opened: 8 December 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Belinda Williams

After five and a half hours of Nicholas Nickleby, I sucked in the cold neon London air outside the Gielgud and decided I needed a drink. Little did I know I was soon to stumble upon Dickensian London, alive and well and stagnated as ever, in The French House, Dean Street. An hour later, a man in his forties, cravat askew and aglow with the false health of a seasoned alcoholic, was throwing a punch at my bespectacled face (happily deflected), and all this over half a pint of spilt Guinness. The bar staff, far from ready to help, were instead, in their avarice, quick to defend their big-drinking walking-wallet, saying, "He's a regular he's no trouble usually" to the reluctant audience, quickly dispersing of anti-samaritans.

Nicholas Nickleby, the tale of greed versus humility, of the self-seeking against the kind, the interminable tangle of rich and poor, and the duality of London life, is still an apposite study of the human condition. The 1830s was a time of great flux, as industrialisation swelled the towns and the old orders of society were razed. London has never quite recovered from that point and many areas remain halfway houses full of mistrust and casual rudeness towards your fellow man.

When I watched Part I of the Chichester Festival Theatre Production of the Dickens classic, I felt that this was an adaptation for our times. Scenes snapped together as perfectly as Lego blocks, each a different and vibrant colour, and the audience energy level was kept at a constant buzz. The company adjusted effortlessly to the movement between dialogue and narrative in David Edgar's successful adaptation, and the slick company benefitted from an expert lighting design by Mark Jonathan, which used stark highlights and shading to an almost filmic effect.

There was some very good casting, not least the scrawny young ingnue Nicholas himself (an energetic Daniel Weyman) and his perfect foil, a kind of malign and mercantile Brian Sewell, the endlessly boo-able and yet wonderfully understated Ralph Nickleby (David Yelland). Added to these natural characters came the whole host of Dickensian gargoyles, who stood in perfect relief. Those to mention include, in the milliners, the irrepressible Miss Knagg (Tricia Kelly), the arch-villain schoolmaster Mr Wackford Squeers (a dirtied-up Pip Donaghy) and the loveable wizened old alcoholic Newman Noggs (faultless Richard Bremmer).

That I should come back two hours later to find the second half so poor was quite a shock. The actors seemed not to have recovered from their mocking depiction of the Crummles artistes. What had previously been well-observed comedy was now obsessive and unsuccessful playing-for-laughs; the pacing and arm-flailing of the young Nicklebys became unbearably giddy-making and, though they ran ruts into the stage, they seemed to lack driving emotion. Stephen Oliver's musical numbers, which had hitherto been used sparingly and usually in parody, were now bursting up everywhere, intrusive and ill-judged considering not one among the company could hold a note. The emotive string obligato that ushered in and out each scene only served to lampoon the onstage histrionics, and I was only too happy when Smike's saccadic gestures and inappropriately profuse dribbling were finally laid to rest.

All in all, whatever balance once existed had been lost. The 'straight' characters' new-found hysterics made it impossible to pity them, and any 'touching' scene was made nauseating. The character parts found it necessary to up their game in response, thus negating all their comic effect, and one wondered if their distorted routines had not been made to entertain in the rehearsal room and that perhaps I was missing some terribly funny in-jokes.

The only saving grace of Nicholas Nickleby Part II were the twin saving graces of the benevolent Cheeryble brothers (Wayne Cater and David Nellist), but even their breezy presences could not save this three-and-a-half hour show from feeling like pure Christmas torment.

Come out of Part I and you will feel elated with festive spirit but I suggest at this point that you go and read the book instead, for Part II will assault your seasonal tolerance levels for schmaltz and you'll long to be outside being assaulted by yuletide drunks instead.

Belinda Williams 2007

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