DAVID COPPERFIELD at the Riverside Studios
“It’s not quite bawdy enough to warrant its music hall credentials, although it does draw enough lascivious laughs to tip it over the watershed”
‘David Copperfield’ has come to be regarded as Charles Dicken’s favourite, mainly because it is his most autobiographical. Certain episodes of his life are thinly disguised. Dickens himself, however, was at pains to stress that the book was not pure documentary, but a “complicated weaving of truth and invention”. Simon Reade’s adaptation embraces this concept by presenting a faithful and true interpretation of the novel, interlaced with lavish threads of inventiveness.
Set in a music hall atmosphere, just three actors – Christopher Buckley, Katy Owen and James Peake – perform the many characters that burst from Dickens’ pages. To be more specific; Buckley plays the eponymous Copperfield, while the other two play everybody else. Owen and Peake open proceedings, gate-crashing into the auditorium at Riverside Studios, sweeping us back in time with their Victoriana attire and attitude, but also keeping us in contemporary reality with modern expletives. It’s a daring mix that informs the show, but the combination threatens sometimes to throw it off course.
First staged last summer at Frinton Summer Theatre, it has made the journey from the coast to the city, a little unsure of the audience it is expecting, or aiming for. “David Copperfield” shoots a little too high for the family crowd, but too low for an adult audience. It’s not quite bawdy enough to warrant its music hall credentials, although it does draw enough lascivious laughs to tip it over the watershed. Despite this, it still seems misplaced in the evening slot, yet it certainly wouldn’t slip into the school run schedule.
Yet the energy radiating from the performers would definitely outrun anyone a fraction of their age. Buckley is the calmer of the three, having the luxury of focusing on the main character, which doesn’t mean it makes his job easier. Throwing gender specifics out of the window (a necessary choice) Peake takes on – among others – the faithful maid Clara Peggotty, eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, love interest Dora and a deliciously camp Wilkins Micawber. Meanwhile Owen tears through – again among others – a cool James Steerforth, Agnes Wickfield, Emily, Uriah Heep, Ham Peggotty, and a show-stealing Emma Micawber. Owen has the skill to throw fresh light onto our preconceptions of Dickens’ characters. At times, however, the scale of the multi-rolling appears to be a challenge to the performers’ versatility, which paradoxically lessens the challenge for the audience so our attention slips.
But after interval, the game steps up, and the show starts to grow into itself. There is more nuance and more depth and, as the characters begin to win our sympathy, we find we start to care a little bit more. Conversely, there is a noticeable drop in the musical numbers, so when Buckley does finally break into song it is a bit of a jolt. Not always a seamless addition to the narrative, Chris Larner’s compositions serve up a nice portion of comedy and variety, accompanied by MD Tom Knowles; an enigmatic and charismatic presence behind his piano, observing with a deadpan intensity.
There are echoes of ‘Kneehigh’ in the performances, and particularly in Emily Raymond’s spirited staging. It takes a while, though, for us to appreciate all the subtlety and ingenuity of the production. It is as though the cast only really start to feel comfortable mid-way through. But we are left with a warm feeling in our hearts when the piece comes full circle and the troupe pack away the tale back into the trunk. The fourth wall is breached once more, and we are ready to meet these players in the bar and buy them a congratulatory pint.
Reviewed on 9th February 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Christian Davies
Previously reviewed at this venue: