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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

In Martin McDonagh’s 2003 play The Pillowman there is a character who writes stories in the style of the Brothers Grimm featuring violence on children that seem to mirror recent child murders. His latest play concerns Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of somewhat lighter tales, and our own Charles Dickens, but it is very very very dark nonetheless, though I’m not sure what the point is.

We learn that Andersen is rather full of himself, but also rather sinister, imprisoning an African pygmy woman he calls Marjory who seems to be the source of his tales. He visits the Dickens family in England, who appear to have a pygmy of their own, Marjory’s sister Ogechi, and outstays his welcome. There are a lot of puzzling references to the death of millions in the Congo, Marjorie’s homeland, at the hands of the Belgians, in the name of rubber, with a lot of Belgian jokes and a pair of red Belgian thugs. Hans fondness for a young man and for children generally are hinted at, both he and Dickens are racists and their expletive laden dialogue jarred with the period. It has some darkly funny moments, but also disturbing ones, a lot of uncomfortable ones and quite a few boring ones too. The narrator is Tom Waits no less (recorded, not live!).

To be honest, I think an unknown playwright would have either had it rejected, or been sent home to rewrite and improve it, but it’s McDonagh, so it gets a high profile production on a major stage and it becomes his eight play seen in London and his first flop. Anna Fleishle’s design and an auspicious stage debut from Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory are to be admired, but otherwise I’m afraid I felt it fell flat. It seemed to me like a half-baked attempt to shock, pointlessly, and it’s not a patch on his other seven plays.

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What a great idea to create a modern stage version of Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his short pieces for newspapers which preceded his first novel. Another great idea to get star playwright James Graham to nurture eight young writers, each to contribute a story to accompany his four, and to stage it at Wilton’s, a very Dickensian venue which was around when the original sketches appeared.

The twelve tales cover a diverse range of subjects, from a troubled relationship played out during a Mayoral election, through the life of a Scottish drag queen to a sophisticated crime and the sighting of a rare songbird. Instead of telling them sequentially, though, they are interwoven, and this is where it went wrong for me, as it made for a fragmentary evening of uneven writing.

The five performers do very well, switching characters and stories with the turn of a head or the donning of a hat, and Thomas Hescott’s staging, on a raised platform which dealt well with Wilton’s usually challenging sight-lines, using minimal props but excellent projections by Daniel Denton, served them well enough. In the end though, the constant switching between stories inhibited your enjoyment of them and eventually became irritating.

An ambitious and clever idea that sadly didn’t live up to its promise.

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I’d got it into my head it was going to be just another A Christmas Carol, so the theatrical magic of the Old Vic’s production caught me by surprise. Matthew Warchus’ staging is very special indeed.

The theatre has been reconfigured again, this time ‘in-the-round’ with banks of seats onstage, the front stalls turned sideways, eight entrances to what is a surprisingly small playing area the length of the stalls, and lots of lamps hanging above. When you add terrific period costumes, Rob Howell’s design brilliantly evokes Victorian London. The addition of Christmas carols accompanied by folky instrumentation, with the inspired use of hand bells, completes the magic.

Jack Thorne’s adaptation is very bleak at first, with Rhys Ifans’ Scrooge as dark as the material. After the ghosts of Christmas’ past, present and future have had their say, his redemption is more joyful and uplifting as a result. It’s hard to imagine a better Scrooge than Ifans, his scenes with Tiny Tim as loving as his earlier treatment of family and friends had been vile. His transition from grumpy to warm is beautifully handled. He doesn’t even have to comb his hair! The morality of Charles Dickens’ story is stronger than its ever been, and in this version often very moving.

When Scrooge is organising Christmas dinner for the families of his nephew and former employee Bob Cratchit, the arrival of the food is a thing of great wonder, the snow inside the theatre is as heavy as it would be outside, and when Silent Night is played by hand bells the silence was extraordinary. As the snow melts, your heart melts, and you leave the theatre with a warm glow.

My Christmas started seven weeks earlier with the Hackney panto. This was its biggest treat. I now declare it officially over.

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I’m a bit puzzled by the transfer of this musical, based on Charles Dickens unfinished work, particularly as it was announced so soon after the Landor opening. I can only assume they think Wendi Peters (formerly Corrie’s Cilla Battersby) is a big draw, or maybe the timing of the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth or the recent TV series or all three!

There’s a lot of talent involved. It’s well designed and staged and the performances and musicians are all fine. There are some nice songs, particularly the company numbers, and some fun is to be had. The mystery is a play-within-a play / musical as it’s set in Victorian a music hall, so the performers are also characters in the mystery. You get to vote on who you think did it in the second half, the result of which determines some of what follows.

The trouble is, it’s all much of a muchness and frankly I wasn’t particularly interested who did it. My mood and tiredness (and the heat in the theatre, if you get my drift) contributed to the indifference, but even if I was on top form I’m not convinced the forced bonhomie would have swept me away.

As modern parlance goes – meh…..

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Whilst Punchdrunk attempt the spectacular with their Dr Who show in Manchester, they’re involved in more minimalist fare back here in London – and what a non-event it is.

You turn up at an address in Hoxton and are taken into a disused shop and to a dimly lit booth where you’re given cold vegetable soup and spend 20 minutes with Alfie who tells you about his life as a veg man and other members of his family. Then you leave. The location, space and the design are the only clues that immersive masters Punchdrunk have had a hand in this.

I don’t know if everyone else’s experience was as underwhelming (you’re in groups of two or three with different characters and stories), but mine certainly was. It’s apparently based on Dickens’ sketches of the same name and there is an audio walking tour which you’re encouraged to do too. It was too wet both before and after, but I did listen to the audio I’d downloaded – it didn’t add much.

Fortunately, The Geffrye Museum was next door and I hadn’t been for a long time, so the schlep to Hoxton was redeemed by their lovely period rooms and gardens (and excellent new cafe!).

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