'London Tide' review – Charles Dickens's watery thriller becomes a striking stage play

Read our review of London Tide, adapted by Ben Power and PJ Harvey from the novel Our Mutual Friend, now in performances at the National Theatre to 22 June.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It could be an episode of Silent Witness or the latest Scandi noir. London Tide, adapted from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend, opens with the discovery of a dead body in the river – but this grisly find is just another day at the office for waterman Gaffer Hexam, who makes his living from robbing water-logged corpses.

From there, we’re plunged into a typically dense Dickensian plot involving money, class, inheritance, lawyers, murder, family, love, and, of course, some outlandish twists (although you can see the big first-half-closing revelation coming a mile off). Adaptor Ben Power streamlines it all pretty effectively, ditching one subplot and its extraneous characters, however the production still runs at over three hours.

Perhaps to prove that Dickens needn’t be posh, fussy period drama, Ian Rickson’s monochromatic staging is strikingly austere. In Bunny Christie’s design, plastic sheeting covers the back wall, the Thames is evoked by fog, and an overhead lighting rig (courtesy of Jack Knowles) swings back and forth, suggesting the ripples and swell of the churning river, and adding a sense of foreboding.

Power also puts the focus on two female characters: Gaffer’s daughter Lizzie, who sacrifices everything for her brother Charley’s education, and the lower-middle-class Bella Wilfer, who is desperate to escape poverty.

Both get caught up in complicated romances, linked to that dead body. Bella was engaged to the man, so becomes a widow before a wife, but soon finds a prickly dynamic with a mysterious new arrival, while Lizzie catches the eye of two would-be “saviours”: her brother’s schoolmaster and a restless lawyer.

It’s an immense amount of plot to pack in (plus that murder investigation, which sees blame cast on Gaffer, tainting his children), and Power’s adaptation does lay it out clearly. But there’s very little subtext in his exposition-heavy script, and the characterisation is necessarily broad. It sometimes veers into soap territory – especially with the casting of EastEnders’s Jake Wood, and a “Get out of my pub!” scene.

Hindering, rather than helping, are PJ Harvey’s samey, dirge-like, soporific songs, which do nothing to advance the action or reveal the characters’ inner lives. If you removed them entirely, Power would have more time to let his scenes breathe. It’s another unfortunate example of creators not really addressing the key question of why their show should be a musical – or hiring someone from the pop world instead of an up-and-coming musical theatre writer.

There are stellar performances, though. Bella Maclean is excellent as the stroppy, headstrong Bella, Ami Tredea brings sincerity to Lizzie, Peter Wight is lovable (if underused) as Mr Boffin, Penny Layden is a hoot as the guilt-tripping Mrs Wilfer, Joe Armstrong is suitably menacing as ex-con Riderhood, Crystal Condie is a tough Miss Potterson, and Jamael Westman, Tom Mothersdale and Scott Karim are a good trio of feverishly intense suitors.

But strengthening the female characters doesn’t entirely work, since Lizzie’s martyrdom becomes more maddening when she has more agency, and you grow weary of the women being constantly bullied or emotionally blackmailed.

In fact, the standout turn is Ellie-May Sheridan (making her stage debut) as Lizzie’s spirited pal Jenny Wren, who says what the audience is thinking. “You are so much better than being the bearer of a man’s burden,” she rightly tells the exasperating Lizzie; and later she laments the “endless job of forgiving men”. I’d happily watch a whole show from her point of view.

Dickens’s still-relevant social commentary comes powering through, especially his biting satire around inequality, class snobbery, and the plight of characters like Bella who get caught between two worlds. There’s also a cracking line about useless politicians. This promising watery play at our great riverside theatre just needs more in its depths – and fewer songs.

London Tide is at the National Theatre through 22 June.

Photo credit: London Tide (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

Special offers, reviews and release dates for the best shows in town.

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy