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A CurtainUp London London Review
Nicholas Nickleby

Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. — Dickens' description of the boys of Dotheboys Hall
Nicholas Nickleby
Hannah Yelland as Kate Nickleby and Daniel Weyman as Nicholas. (Photo: Robert Day)
If you can only take in one Christmas show in London this year, let it be Nicholas Nickleby. This magnificent staging of Charles Dickens' sprawling, sentimental novel is unmissable.

It is almost three decades since Trevor Nunn staged David Edgar's adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company and this time the production comes from the Chichester Festival Theatre, which under Jonathan Church, is bringing so many productions to London. The theatre is producing with amazing reliability to persuade any theatre goer who wants to leave London that he could do no better than to move to Sussex. I wasn't among those who saw the original version that David Edgar penned but there were those in the press day crowd who had, who were not disappointed. The play is presented in two performances both just over three hours long which you can see on the same day or on separate evenings. Co-director with Jonathan Church is Philip Franks, who as an actor played Tom Pinch on BBC television to Tom Wilkinson's Mr Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewitt.

The skill of Edgar's adaptation is in keeping much of Dickens' familiar prose as narrative with the whole cast of twenty seven delivering gobbets of the story. We are immediately immersed into Dickensian London, with a detailed set of old wood and ropes and iron staircases, costumes of Victorian gentility and poverty and of course the greatest strength, the vivid, descriptive language.

One look at Newman Noggs (Richard Bremmer) with his long thin legs in high waisted trousers and a scruffy jacket and waistcoat and we can see Boz's illustrations coming to life. And for the lazy, theatre is a better option that those vast, descriptive passages where the detail is all and the action has slowed. In the first half hour we are in the middle of a riot from the muffin sellers, see the funeral on the death of the Nickleby father and meet the epitome of evil schoolmasters, Wackford Squeers (Pip Donaghy) on his recruiting drive in London for his Yorkshire "academy" the infamous Dotheboys Hall.

The staging is imaginative and, above all, fun. The stage coach on which Nicholas sets off for Yorshire is an improvised concoction of chairs and twirling umbrellas where the wheels would be, with the cast rocking to and forth with the motion à la those early episodes of Star Trek. Once at the school, the boys line up for the brimstone and treacle administered by Mrs Squeers and, introduce themselves, giving their name, age and reason for incarceration at the boarding school: age 10 bastard, age 13 mother died, age 12 crippled and so on.

Our first meeting with the damaged Smike (David Dawson) is tear jerking. I am told he is less exaggerated than David Threlfall was in the part that made his name, but heart- rending nonetheless. The Squeers family are a nightmare and here Nicholas falls victim to the ambition and attentions of the flesh curdling Miss Fanny Squeers in a delightfully comic performance from Zoê Waites. Ms Waites doubles as three women in Nicholas' life, Miss Squeers, the flamboyant swooning actress, Miss Snevellicci in Portsmouth, and finally as Nicholas' true love, Madeline Bray.

The doubling, trebling and more of the parts is imaginative. Donaghy corners the best parts for villains — the evil Wackford Squeers, and in a velvet coat and with bouffant hair as the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk who plots to seduce Nicholas' sister Kate. In the Mantalini milliners' establishment where Kate is employed, both the men and women don mob caps and stitch away to keep the business afloat. Of course the extravagant Mr Mantalini (Simon Roberts) is exposed as a womaniser and fraud who brings the business to its knees.

The first part ends with a bowlderised version of Romeo and Juliet. Here the ensemble company really enjoys the performance in Portsmouth of the Shakespearean tragedy with every corpse coming back to life so that the audience may enjoy a happy ending, and with probably the worse rendition of the Bard's verse ever. Jonathan Coy makes an adorable actor manager as Mr Vincent Crummles and provides a haven for Nicholas and Smike. Intercut with the Romeo scenes is another drama in London where Kate (Hannah Yelland) is exposed to danger by her uncle (her real life, father David Yelland) in the company of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht (Bob Barnett).

The second part starts with a rapid fire, recap of the first, something like the Reduced Shakespeare compilation. We then enter London where Nicholas has been summoned to that classic Dickens line that sets the atmosphere: "Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together." The costumes lose the bright colours of Portsmouth actors and all is reduced to monochromes and browns in the smog filled city. The plot concentrates on Uncle Ralph Nickleby. We also meet the affable Cheeryble Brothers (Wayne Cater and David Nellist) with spectacles, bright auburn hair and Tweedledum Tweedledee blue jackets and white hose and Madeleine Bray. The plot to take Smike is thankfully foiled but tuberculosis eventually steals him away. You will need a handkerchief.

The performances are superb. Hannah Yelland has variety and depth as sister Kate compared to her flibbertigibbet mother (Abigail McKern). Ralph Nickleby gets his comeuppance and David Yelland makes sure we have not the least bit of sympathy for him. Daniel Weyman is reliably noble throughout as Nicholas and David Dawson sympathetic as Smike without being overly sentimental or mawkish. Bob Barrett's gruff Yorshireman, John Browdie is a loyal friend to Nicholas as is the delightful all-seeing clerk, Newman Noggs (Richard Bremmer). The ensemble work very hard and it is almost unfair to single out some when so many others deserve mention. I predict a new career for Zoê Waites (she has played most of the Shakespearean heroines with the RSC) in comedic roles.

This is an exemplary production showing off every aspect of the best of English theatre and is destined for Toronto in early 2008. I'm tempted to go and see it again.

Adapted by David Edgar from the novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks

Starring: David Yelland, Hannah Yelland, Daniel Weyman, Zoë Waites, Pip Donaghy, Richard Bremmer, Jonathan Coy
With: Abigail McKern, Peter Moreton, Alison Fiske, Emma Manton, Wayne Cater, Matthew Spencer, Rob Kendrick, Christopher Logan, David Dawson, Veronica Roberts, David Nellist, Philippa Stanton, Simon Roberts, Roses Urquhart, Philip Battley, Sarah Lawrie, Tricia Kelly, Bob Barrett, Jane Bertish, Brian Poyser
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Mark Jonathan
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Oliver
Orchestrations and Additional Music: Matthew Scott
Sound Design: Matt McKenzie
Running times: Part One Three hours with one interval, Part Two Three Hours 30 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 0870 950 0915
Booking to 27th January 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th December 2007 performances at the Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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