Little Nell

Simon Gray
Peter Hall Company
Theatre Royal, Bath
(2007)

Simon Gray's new play, Little Nell, has the weighty authority of a classic. Inspired by Clare Tomlinson's book The Invisible Woman: the Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, the play is a fascinating study of what Gray calls, "the sapping logistics of adultery". Gray's multi-layered script masterfully shifts its focus between the uncomfortable and clandestine affair between 45 year old Dickens and 17 year old actress, Nelly Ternan, and the long-lasting implications the affair was to have upon Dickens' sons, sixty-five years later.

The play is beautifully staged by the Peter Hall Company, benefiting from Simon Higlett's imposing set, Peter Mumford's impressive lighting and a pitch perfect cast.

Barry Stanton is memorable as Sir Henry Dickens. He is at first a thoroughly grounded man; respectable; successful; at ease in the leather and mahogany of his office. By contrast, Tim Pigott-Smith's affecting Geoffrey Robinson appears nervous, apologetic and insecure. The two men peel back the layers of their past revealing the uneasy legacy of their father's infidelity, and there is a steady blurring of the distinctions between them. Finally they come to see that they have in common more than they at first thought. Both men give masterful performances, not least in the unguarded emotion of their moving final scene.

Loo Brealey is a captivating Nelly. Her initial, uncomplicated naiveté makes for an unbearable seduction scene and her increasing emotional maturity throughout the play, and her dissatisfaction with her sustained anonymity, are deeply affecting.

Michael Pennington is utterly convincing as Charles Dickens, every bit the Victorian celebrity: puffed-up, self-assured, and easily able to use his status to ingratiate himself upon Nelly. He manipulates, condescends and humiliates her in order to seduce her and then to sustain the affair. Gray makes the lightest suggestion of what he refers to as Dickens' "sexual lunacy", concocting a playful seduction, laden with uncomfortable innuendo: Nelly tugs at Dickens' beard with her teeth and exclaims, "What are we to do? As I haven't a beard for you to eat", to which he replies, "There's not a part of you that I don't intend to eat".

After they have consummated their relationship, Dickens provides Nelly a towel he has anticipated she might need. Here Pennington lends Dickens' a smug pretence of tenderness, setting off this most pre-meditated exploitation. This, coupled with Brealey's youthful bewilderment and naive acquiescence, has a gloriously uneasy impact.

Edward Bennett is a tortured and pitiful George Robinson, Nelly's husband, duped into believing in his wife's respectability, but frequently torn apart by his suspicions. Tony Haygarth is a wonderful Reverend Benham, his easy naturalism seducing Nelly into confessing her secret in lovely Victorian euphemism: admitting that she had "honoured" and "served" Dickens over many a year.

Little Nell is a fascinating and well-crafted story which cracks the veneer of the Victorian respectable classes, and shatters the historical mistruth of the sanctity of Victorian marriage. Loo Brealey gets to the heart of Nelly's dogged determination to suppress her sense of injustice and instead tolerate her lot. In this way, the production honours another Victorian institution: that a woman should know her place. She may ultimately have come to voice her anguish at her social invisibility, but Nelly Ternan nevertheless endured it to the very end, and this private torment is abundantly clear in Brealey's astounding performance.

"Little Nell" runs as part of the Peter Hall Season at the Theatre Royal Bath, until July 28th, 2007.

Allison Vale