Out of Joint
Salisbury Playhouse and touring
This new play by Sebastian Barry, in Max Stafford-Clark's typically keen-eyed production currently on its world premier tour, might have been a tale of two writers.
It certainly tells us much about Charles Dickens, by no means all of it complimentary. Not so much, though, is revealed about the Danish children's writer of the title, Hans Christian Andersen, whose extended sojourn at the Dickens family home at Gad's Hill is the setting for this absorbing study of, supposedly, two creative artists.
Those of us who might have been hoping to learn something more about Andersen than we received from the popular film account by Danny Kaye were to be disappointed, albeit Anderson has arguably every bit as much to be said about him. Andersen's English, let there be no mistake, is about Charles Dickens.
Nothing wrong with that of course, since Dickens is one of our greatest writers and who has given more than most in juicy roles and caricatures to the theatre and, especially, to the actors who earn their livelihood from it.
Moreover, this play strikes me as a potpourri of a few of the favourite things of Sebastian Barry. There is Dickens himself, Andersen, and the songs of fellow Dubliner Thomas Moore. These melodies include the John McCormack classic Oft in the Stilly Night, The Last Rose of Summer (famously borrowed by Flotow in mistake for an English traditional air in his opera, Martha) and the tune beloved by all grieving Irish folk, The Minstrel Boy.
Stafford-Clark, as always, has gathered to the work a formidable cast - the excellent Niamh Cusack as the loving yet unloved wife Catherine Dickens, and Lisa Kerr in the key but so easy to dismiss role of house maid Aggie.
Andersen is played in an almost Brechtian touch of inspiration by the Hackney-born Danny Sapani as though to leave no doubts about the visitor's impact upon this, seemingly, close-knit household.
Excellent performances, too, from Lorna Stuart (Katie Dickens), Kathryn O'Reilly (Georgie Hogarth) and the promising young Alastair Mavor as the clumsy Dickens son Walter.
Outstanding in this performance is David Rintoul in the central role of Charles Dickens.
Lucy Osborne's setting is splendidly versatile - every room in the house here and Gad's Hill itself for good measure.
The women's dresses might have been straight from a contemporary "quality street" painting, though I was puzzled at the total absence of hats on the afternoon walk!
The singing of Moore's work is, like the entire production, charming.
"Andersen's English" continues at The Playhouse until Saturday 27th March and the tour continues at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold (30 March-3rd April) and concludes at the Hampstead Theatre, London (7th April- 8th May).
Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole