Andersen's English

Sebastian Barry
Out of Joint
Library Theatre, Manchester

Production photo

Sebastian Barry's new play for Out of Joint recreates the unexpected arrival and extended stay of Danish children's author Hans Christian Andersen at the family home of celebrated British author Charles Dickens in 1857.

Framed by Andersen reading of Dickens's death in 1870 and recounting the events of thirteen years earlier to his young friend Stefan, the play takes us into the family home of one of England's most revered authors at a time when his large family was beginning to break up for various reasons. Charles regards his sixteen-year-old son Walter as of little use for most employment so proposes packing him off to fight in India. His wife Catherine appears on the verge of a breakdown due to Charles's mysterious estrangement from her and his closeness to her sister Georgie who has helped to raise the children because of Catherine's weakness from constant childbearing. Into this troubled home comes Andersen, a lonely eccentric with poor English and a poor understanding of the etiquette when staying with a family in England.

Despite his name appearing in the title, Andersen is more of an estranged observer or possibly a catalyst to the story than a protagonist as the story is really about Dickens's increasing detachment from and coldness towards his family and the effect this has on them all. Andersen has become a device for getting the other characters to open up as well as injecting some humour into a potentially humourless tale, but as such the character works very well.

As would be expected from an Out of Joint production, Max Stafford-Clark's direction is tight and detailed and every member of the cast appears to have had time to fully explore his or her character. Danny Sapani creates a childlike Andersen as a loveable if odd character with a melancholic centre who provides plenty of amusement and potential for embarrassment. David Rintoul's Dickens is always the actor, demonstrating his hospitality and his love for his family whilst unswerving in his decisions that make them unhappy or tear them apart. Niamh Cusack is weary and unstable as Catherine, always on the verge of tears or anger that she struggles to rein in.

Lisa Kerr gives a wonderful performance as the young maid Aggie who is pursued constantly by doe-eyed Walter but has a secret that will threaten to tear her away from the family she loves after her own family died in the Irish famine. There are also strong performances from Alastair Mavor as Walter and Stefan, Kathryn O'Reilly as Georgie and Lorna Stuart as Charles's favourite daughter Kate who stands up to him and as young actress Ellen whom he takes a close interest in later on. The younger children are played by puppets operated by the other family members, which works brilliantly.

Lucy Osborne's set of Victorian furniture looks a little cramped on the Library's stage and isn't particularly inspiring, but Stafford-Clark uses it imaginatively when the action takes us outside the home, such as when Walter sits on the piano fishing, when the fireplace becomes a box at Crystal Palace or when the whole set is used for the family walk on the hillside.

This is a complex tale told clearly and intelligently and with warmth and humour by Barry. Stafford-Clark has become one of the greatest directors of new work as he can bring out fully-rounded and natural performances from his actors and give great clarity to a production without feeling the need to put his own directorial stamp on it other than to create the perfect platform for the playwright's voice to come through.

This is a play with a great deal humour, intelligence and emotion and a fascinating insight into the family life of one of our greatest novelists in a wonderfully-realised production and is well worth seeing on its short stay in Manchester.

Ray Brown reviewed this production in Leeds. It was also reviewed by Kevin Catchpole in Salisbury. It was then reviewed by Philip Fisher at Hampstead Theatre.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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