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The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar
Ovation DVD £39.99
(2006)

It is only once every few years that the theatre is able to throw up the kind of life affirming event that remains in the memory for decades.

Often, these are characterised by their great length and the feeling, at the end, of an epic experience, that one has been witness to a microcosm of the whole of life in a single day.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is a piece of theatre that remains completely unforgettable 25 years after it was first seen at the RSC. Indeed, it is the kind of work that only this subsidised company or possibly the National Theatre could ever have produced.

We are fortunate that this was the first piece of drama ever seen on Channel 4 television and thus it is now available on DVD for all to enjoy.

The creative team behind this work is impressive. Charles Dickens' novel has been adapted by playwright David Edgar and then reworked for the stage by co-directors Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird with expert assistance from composer, the late Stephen Oliver.

The video was filmed at the Old Vic in front of an appreciative live audience who, towards the end, cannot help themselves but cheer and jeer as the good and bad finally receive their just deserts.

This is a major work by any measure, lasting some eight-and-a-half hours and featuring 39 actors playing some 150 parts between them. If this sounds a little indigestible, it can be made easier by following Channel 4's example and breaking the play down into nine more manageable episodes of just under an hour each.

On one level, this is an excellent way of experiencing Victorian life with all its hustle and bustle, poverty and wealth jostling each other on stage. The pace and feel of the novel are maintained by regular narration offered by members of the cast, often in teams like a latter-day Greek chorus.

The real pleasure of this DVD though is in enjoying the characterisation of Dickens, translated to the stage by an excellent ensemble of actors many of whom are still instantly recognisable.

Dickens' plot will be familiar to most viewers. Young Nicholas and his sister, Kate have been devastated by the death of their father. Their mother in true Dickensian fashion is little better than useless and they are forced to rely on the good nature of their Uncle Ralph, a man for whom money is everything.

The destitute siblings are divided, with Nicholas forced to act as a teacher at the dreadful Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire, run by Wackford Squeers and his family, while Kate works for indigent dressmaker.

Many adventures follow as Nicholas is aided by crippled Smike in his adventures as an actor and eventually as assistant to a pair of successful businessmen.

Love intrudes, but not without much pain on account of lack of money, and, inevitably, most of the major protagonists live long and happily ever after.

It is hard to pick out only a handful of the 39 actors, all of whom have their great moments. Initially, Roger Rees as good, worthy Nicholas and, even more so, David Threlfall as Smike are outstanding. Threlfall in particular gives his all in the performance of his life as a cripple who is unable to speak or walk without the greatest difficulty.

Emily Richard makes a sweet Kate, while the whole of the Squeers family is perfect, Alun Armstrong as the unbearably greasy and hateful Wackford Senior, Lila Kaye as his vicious wife plus Susannah Bertish and Ian McNeice as their far from playful and incredibly selfish children.

In London, John Woodvine plays Uncle Ralph with the correct mixture of self-absorption and eventually self pity, while Edward Petherbridge is superb as his good-hearted, finger-cracking assistant, Newman Noggs.

Finally, the late Bob Peck has a number of roles that show what a fine character actor he was varying from a bluff Yorkshireman through minor parts to the infinitely wicked Sir Mulberry Hawk, evil incarnate.

The price might initially seem a little steep for a DVD but this is a triple set and by casting around a little it should be available at little more than half of the recommended retail price. Even at £39.99, this three DVD set providing eight-and-a-half hours of entertainment represents good value for money. Go on, treat yourself or a friend.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher