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David Copperfield

Charles Dickens, adapted by Giles Havergal
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2005)

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Where would British theatre be without Charles Dickens? The first stage adaptations of the author's novels appeared in Dickens' lifetime and their successors have been a staple of theatrical entertainment ever since.

Giles Havergal's adaptation of David Copperfield, which he also directs, is the latest in a long line of attempts to reduce a long novel to a play of reasonable length without sacrificing too many characters or oversimplifying the plot. Although he succeeds reasonably well (but wasn't willin' to include Peggotty's loyal suitor Barkiss), this production is disappointingly flat and uninvolving. Most of the familiar characters and incidents are there, but the atmosphere of the novel simply hasn't transferred from page to stage. It's rather like watching a theatrical version of Cliff's Notes.

The performances of Andy Hockley (Mr Micawber), Alwyne Taylor (Peggotty), Ellen Sheean (Aunt Betsy), Steven O'Neill (Uriah Heep) and Gregory Fox-Murphy (Steerforth) are all that a Dickens fan could wish for, but it would be interesting to know why Havergal chose to set the play in the Edwardian period. When the Micawbers and their brood first appeared, pushing a handcart containing all their wordly goods, I half expected Mrs Micawber (Patti Clare) to burst into the chorus of "My Old Man Said Follow the Van". This pointless updating is a constant source of irritation, as is the device of having the middle-aged David (Rupert Frazer) on stage throughout to comment on the adventures of his younger self (Mark Rice-Oxley).

Another problem is the use of adult actors to play children. I have rarely seen this done convincingly - it's usually an excuse for painfully unchildlike romping - and when the cast includes real children, albeit in non-speaking roles, the attempt is doomed from the start.

The real star of the show is Simon Higlett's set, which uses every inch of the Quarry Theatre's deep stage and seems to recede into the middle distance. The rough planking walls are equally successful in evoking the nightmarish factory where the young David is forced to work and the upturned boat in which Peggotty's family lives, although it would have been nice to see a more naturalistic representation of one of the most famous homes in English literature!

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 28th May

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson