Co-produced by Out of Joint and Hampstead Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and touring
Always expect something special from Out of Joint.
It's 1857 and we are with the Dickens' family at Gad Hill, their house in Kent. Dickens, his wife, her younger sister, two children, a maid and a further three children played by puppets. A cluttered set on a big stage - fireplace, chaise longue, table, chairs, piano, raised area for a bed, window beyond bed, potted palms which might be within or bleeding into a garden. It is light, airy, pleasing.
The narrative is easy enough, though intricate. This family is riddled with problems and crackling with tension. Dickens' browbeaten wife loves him, he loves her sister; he and his daughter (who shares his wilfulness and energy) have a sparkily ambivalent relationship. He is sending his timid sixteen years old son to join the army in India (where a cousin has just been killed). And the son has impregnated the Irish maid, to whom he clings with the passion of a frightened teenage boy. The whole is locked and wrapped in the conventions of the mid-nineteenth century middle classes.
Enter Hans Christian Andersen, a bumbling bag of neuroses, pathologically insecure, in thrall to Dickens (though himself the more famous writer)... armed with an arrogance based on a sense of inferiority and a stumbling command of English.
Anderson sees what we see - a charming, talented family, going happily about its very privileged business (badminton, cricket, pie making, country walks, singing round the joanna and so on). But he doesn't hear what we are hearing. So his limitations don't allow him to understand what's happening around him. And in some sense the conventional limitations within which the family exist dictate that, whilst knowing what's happening, quite often they themselves do not really understand what is happening.
Perhaps because the Victorians have become a happy stomping ground for today's satirists and comedians, the production plays against the comedic potential of this situation. These characters are afloat on a swell of bruised and turgid emotion, they are not there to be laughed at and we are not inclined to laugh.
But whilst the emotions are black and blue, the set and wardrobe are gloriously pastel shaded and light. Furthermore, this seemingly endlessly talented cast is well up to, and up for, a script that demands that vitriol, sharp blades and smouldering heat are wrapped in polite words and prettily tied with smiles. The cast is breathtakingly good.
Clearly, the play as so far described is well worth a night in the theatre. But more, much more. The production is magnificent. I have never seen such fluid movement between scenes, they intercut, overlay, cross fade. Lighting and sound provide a master class in understated subtlety and there is a joyful exploitation of the set. A picnic on the hill top? Climb the furniture! At this point you feel that Escher has had a hand in the production. And what a view you have from the mantel piece!
When Dickens' son sits fishing the hearth rug from the piano, we are suddenly in the world of that other great Victorian writer, Lewis Carroll. At times you feel a vertigo which comes from precarious furniture climbing and mirrors the depth of the text. This stagecraft realises the danger that at any moment a character might tumble head over heels into post Freudian insight.
There are dozens of fine touches, for example during one scene segue a clock chimes repeatedly, rapidly, and then fades away. So, an intelligent text, brilliant acting and a cornucopia of light, movement and sound. The whole creates an astonishing sense of everyday surrealism that, in a metaphorical sense, is absolutely naturalistic. Theatre gets no better.
Reviewer: Ray Brown