Marathon theatrical events rarely come much longer than six and a half hours. That's the running time of this version of Charles Dickens' work, 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby'. Split into two parts (both quite long in themselves), it's a bit of an endurance test for audiences (although you do not have to see both parts in one day), but more especially for the company of twenty-odd actors who double-up in numerous roles in order to cope with a character list of almost biblical proportions, and had the daunting task of having to learn a tome-like script. Still, they all cope admirably in this inspiring and appealing story that focuses on the struggle between good and evil in England's Victorian era.
This adaptation of Charles Dickens' epic novel was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company almost 30 years ago. That version was also shown as a serial on TV by Channel 4 (it's still available on DVD). This current revival emantes from the Chichester Festival Theatre and is destined for more touring after this turn at the Gielgud in London.
With a plot that has twists and turns every few minutes and introduces hosts of new characters at equally regular intervals, it's not an easy work to summarise briefly. Essentially, Nicholas Nickleby's father has died, leaving his wife and two children pretty much destitute. To survive, they have to fall back on the assistance of Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas's miserly, money-lending uncle who makes conditions on helping his impoverished relatives. Nicholas is despatched to Yorkshire where he becomes a teacher in a prison-like boarding school where the children are treated little better than factory-farmed animals. As Nicholas finds himself increasingly at odds with his employer, he eventually rebels and leaves the school, accompanied by one of the boys, Smike. Nicholas returns to London but, finding no welcome from his Uncle, decides to seek his fortune elsewhere and hikes around the country with Smike in tow. During their travels, they meet a variety of characters, including a company of actors which they join, providing much humour as Nicholas and Smike rehearse their lines, and perform in plays.
The focus of the action shifts continually between events in London – where Nicholas's sister Kate suffers humiliation at the hands of her Uncles' business associates – and the adventures of Nicholas and Smike elsewhere. But everything ends up back in London where the story is ultimately resolved.
Unsurprisingly in a way, two directors – Jonathan Church and Philip Franks – have been enlisted to conduct this mega-work. And considering the difficulties that having two directors implies, they've done an incredible job – wherever the directorial responsibilities were divided, you can't see the join. And of course, the success of this kind of production lies in the fluidity of the pacing, without it, the whole thing would be tedious in the extreme even allowing for the undeniable quality of the plot. Church and Franks largely dispense with 'formal' scene changes, and events almost merge as the plot unfolds in different locations.
Though the play is full of larger-than-life characters, there's been no attempt here to make them physically grotesque as is sometimes the case with other stage or film versions of Dickens' work. That said, Richard Bremmer as Newman Noggs must have the longest and thinnest legs I've seen in a long time, lending a spidery quality to his endearing and forlorn portrayal. And the way he cracks his finger bones, sends shivers down the spine.
One of the mesmerising performances of the original RSC production was that of Smike played (if I remember correctly) by David Threlfall. I'm glad to see that, here, David Dawson has made no attempt to copy Threlfall's unique (and exhausting) portrayal, but has opted to stamp his own mark on the role. Dawson presents a child-like Smike, more frightened and timid than Threlfall's interpretation and without undue focus on his physical impediments.
Daniel Weyman leads a fine ensemble cast as the idealistic Nicholas whose principles are often at odds with the characters he encounters, and David Yelland provides the cruel and calculating counterpart as Ralph Nickleby.
Simon Higlett's all-purpose, single Dickensian set provides a fine backdrop and is more than sufficient to cope with the demands of the massive number of scenic locations. And the clever use of a spiral staircase and gantries allow for different perspectives as the action moves around the stage.
Even though this version is somewhat shorter than the original RSC production, It would still have been possible for writer David Edgar to leave out a considerable chunk of each part of 'Nicholas Nickleby' without making the plot incomprehensible. But I suspect there's something special about watching a play of this length that is inspiring and rewarding in itself. In a sense, it's almost as much of a triumph for the audience as the actors.
If you can't spare the time to see both parts, it's certainly worth trying to get to one of them. There's a handy recap at the start of the second part, and the first installment has enough of the flavour of the piece to more than satisfy, and has the funniest section when Nicholas and Smike take up a brief spell of employment with a company of actors.
Surprisingly, there's a festive kind of feel to 'Nicholas Nickleby' in spite of the subject matter. Maybe that's because the Victorian era evokes more traditional memories of Christmas – as demonstrated in the kinds of scenes frequently depicted on Christmas cards. Whatever the case, this version of 'Nicholas Nickleby' is both faithful to the spirit of Dickens' work as well as the original RSC production. It's exemplary storytelling on a monumental scale, and with revivals appearing only once or twice in a lifetime, it's really not to be missed.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A feast of comic amusement in Part One...part two declines into extended dullness." RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "unmissable." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Forget the 'legendary' tag that is inevitably attached to this production; expect less and you'll enjoy it all the more." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Rich mix of tears, laughter and dramatic excitement...knockout stage version of Dickens." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "A triumph of theatrical storytelling."