“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.
“It bears the wrinkles of age, yet this production at the Park Theatre feels wonderfully fresh”
When Mike Leigh was approached by the Hampstead Theatre, back in 1977, to write a new play he initially told them that it was out of the question. He was busy and that was that. But over a long lunch he was eventually persuaded and before dessert came, he had been offered ten week’s rehearsal time and a cast of five to come up with one of his ‘improvised’ plays. “I’ll do it and get it out of the way” he told his wife (Alison Steadman) when he got home, “it’ll sink without trace”.
“Abigail’s Party” was a smash hit. The hottest ticket in town and subsequently wheeled into the studios to become a success on television and eventually Leigh’s hallmark ‘state of the nation’ play. Over forty years later there is the inherent danger that any revival would come across as dated. But in an age where theatre is under pressure to be ‘relevant’ or ‘resonant’, Vivienne Garnett’s production avoids the pitfalls. Instead, it is filled with period charm that serves as a reminder that Leigh’s seminal work should not be updated or shoehorned into modern day sensibilities. The language and sentiments that jar nowadays remain on record. Thankfully we can laugh instead of being offended. The writer can take the credit for this, although in this case it is mainly down to the fine performances of an excellent cast, who wear so well the uncomfortable clothes of Leigh’s characters.
We are thrust into their world immediately. Beth Colley’s design pays attention to every detail, evoking not just the era beautifully but also the overriding sense of class and social standing – the Lowry and Van Gogh prints, and leather-bound Shakespeare that “can’t be read”. The furnishings, tableware, and decor. We are truly in the land of light ale and ‘little’ cigarettes.
We are introduced to the characters one by one. Beverly is preparing for an evening of drinks with her new neighbours, Angela and Tony. She has also invited another neighbour, Susan, whose fifteen-year-old daughter Abigail is holding a party at home. Beverly’s husband comes in from work, harassed, sweary and sweating, just before the guests arrive. Gin and Bacardi soon wash away the initial stiffness, but as the alcohol takes hold, frostiness turns to flirting turns to fighting.
Kellie Shirley burns with nervous energy in a quite captivating performance as Beverly, capturing the bundles of contradictions. Unable to stop talking, unable to take no for an answer and unable to resist upstaging her husband, she is a ghastly character, but Shirley shows us too the sadness and vulnerability. Laurence is already stressed enough, as the workaholic estate agent, and is unable to relax in his wife’s company. As they bait each other they use their guests as ammunition. Ryan Early struts like a dangerous dog, firing unveiled snipes left right and centre, adding to his wife’s guest’s discomfort. Matt Di Angelo, as the mostly monosyllabic Tony, conveys a whole backstory with just a raised eyebrow. “He’s not violent, he’s just a bit nasty” Angela confides, but Di Angelo’s immaculately placed performance reveals dark undercurrents that force us to doubt her words. Emma Noakes’ Angela is wonderfully silly and timid, simultaneously oppressed, and strong. A tough character to get right but Noakes pulls it off superbly. Barbara D’Alterio gives a stillness to Susan that combines grace and manners with disdain. She is too polite to leave but, clearly, would rather be elsewhere.
It is an emotion the audience don’t share. This is a lively, dynamic, and absorbing evening. Admittedly there are no real surprises, but we knew that. “Abigail’s Party” has a familiarity about it that it probably cannot shake off now. It bears the wrinkles of age, yet this production at the Park Theatre feels wonderfully fresh.