Dickens Unplugged

Written and directed by Adam Long
Mark Goucher and Wimpole Theatre in association with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

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“If something is long and complicated I try to reduce it,” says Long, explaining that his attention span has been eroded by years of watching television. His short attention span must have received a short, sharp shock when he began the life and works of Charles Dickens – the final product took him a whole year and involved a lot of very intensive reading. He was a founder member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company which carved the bard’s ‘complete’ works into bite sized chunks, and produced a ninety minute show which, to everyone’s surprise, emerged from the Edinburgh Festival to play at Piccadilly’s Criterion Theatre for nearly ten years, with the touring productions still going strong. This time Long has created a musical, and begins the show with the five cast members - “the biggest Charles Dickens tribute band in Santa Cruz” - performing the opening number on two guitars, a double base and – a suitcase!

These boys can play, they can sing, they can act and they can – well there isn’t a great deal of dancing. The music, composed by the company, is mostly country and western in style and, while not exactly memorable, it goes with an enjoyable swing, and the lyrics are hilarious as they take on several of Dickens’ major works, twist them around more than a little, and rattle them out in double quick time. Bleak House was disposed of in about ten seconds, followed at greater length – comparatively – by David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, complete with gruesome guillotine and a couple of severed heads.

The style is set right from the hilarious beginning when the cast reproduce Oliver Twist with the song and dance numbers from Oliver! – all thoroughly enjoying themselves until Dickens himself storms in. “Oliver Twist is bleakly realistic” he admonishes them. “That’s way different to the movie,” is the disbelieving response.

The costumes are all Dickensian, but the language is very present day with an American twang, and the incongruity causes much of the humour, especially with the men kitted out in elaborate dresses but with little concession to femininity. There were very many young people in the capacity audience, and it was a pleasure to see them there, but it did seem that it was the rude words which caused them most amusement, laughing uproariously at each one.

Between the sketches and musical numbers Dickens’s life is also woven into the show, one particularly memorable scene being between him and his wife, Catherine, during a heated argument when she tells him, “I’m sick of your shit,” and they agree to separate, but each adamantly refusing custody of their ten children.

Strangely, in spite of all the clowning and ridiculous antics, the essence of Dickens’ writing seems to come through, with his concern for the poor and oppressed.

Very clever and sometimes very silly with a lot of schoolboy humour, but always funny, and the energy and joyous enthusiasm of the cast is phenomenal as they change costumes and personae with amazing rapidity. This is probably the most unusual musical you will ever see, and great fun - once you get used to it!

Rachel Sheridan reviewed this production at the Comedy Theatre

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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