London Tide

Based on Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, adapted by Ben Power, songs by P J Harvey and Ben Power
National Theatre
National Theatre (Lyttelton Theatre)

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Brandon Grace as Charley Hexam, Jake Wood as Gaffer Hexam and Ami Tredrea as Lizzie Hexam Credit: Marc Brenner
Ami Tredrea as Lizzie Hexam and Bella Maclean as Bella Wilfer Credit: Marc Brenner
Brandon Grace as Charley Hexam, Ellie-May Sheridan as Jenny Wren and Scott Karim as Bradley Headstone Credit: Marc Brenner
Stephen Kennedy as Reg Wilfer, Penny Layden as Mary Wilfer, Beth Alsbury as Lavinia Wilfer and Bella Maclean as Bella Wilfer Credit: Marc Brenner
Scott Karim as Bradley Headstone (centre) Credit: Marc Brenner
Tom Mothersdale as John Rokesmith Credit: Marc Brenner

This is a story of money and love, the story of a city, the whole company sings after having pulled themselves on to the front of the stage out, it would seem, of the Thames itself. I could swear they were dripping with water though dry when they had their feet on firm ground. With a plank of wood becoming a boat into which a drowned body can be hauled from the water, the sound of the splash even more real as one is rolled into it, Ian Rickson’s austere, mainly monochrome production is atmospheric and moody, the Thames always present, the edge of the stage its bank, its ebb and flow captured in the motion of the lighting battens overhead, uncannily effective.

This adaptation of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, the last novel he completed, with its complicated interwoven plot lines, focuses on the stories of Lizzie and Bella. Lizzie Hexam (powerfully played by Ami Tredrea), is the daughter of a waterman (Jake Wood) who pockets the cash from the bodies he pulls out of the water and is suspected of killing them. She is prepared to sacrifice everything to get her brother Charley (Brandon Grace) a better life. Bella Wilfer (Bella Maclean) is a rung up the class ladder and focused on money. Though they had never met, she was contracted to marry the heir to a fortune made out of what’s found in London’s rubbish, but his body is pulled out of the Thames—she is a widow without having a wedding.

Add a couple of would-be tutors (and suitors) for Lizzie: smitten lawyer Eugene Wrayburn (Jamael Westman) and villainous schoolteacher Bradley Headstone (Scott Karim) and a strange newcomer calling himself John Rokesmith (Tom Mothersdale) who will prove central to the story and many more characters in true Dickens mould, who somehow all interact in this dark picture of riverside London. This grey world is occasionally leavened with laughter in the brief appearances of Noddy Boffin (Peter Wight), who has inherited the wealth of the rubbish dumps, and Lizzie’s young friend Jenny Wren (Ellie-May Sheridan, bringing a bright sparkle to the scene in her lively stage debut).

London Tide features thirteen songs but, though music makes a big contribution, along with Bunny Christie’s design and Jack Knowles’s lighting, it isn’t a musical. P J Harvey’s music, driven by drum beats, has a folk feel, its repetitions often mournful. The small band makes a great sound, but often the lyrics aren’t easy to follow. Sometimes the whole company will sing scenery, more often a character steps forward to sing a soliloquy. I was reminded of Brecht’s own productions of Mother Courage and Caucasian Chalk Circle, but these songs aren’t revealing as his were. Without clear purpose, they stretch out a long show of over three hours.

A consistently strong cast disguises how concentration on plot gives no space to explore character or reflect Dickens’s critique of society. But what, for instance, is the motivation of schoolmaster Headstone, who turns into a conventional baddie? Nevertheless, London Tide is eminently watchable, and if you don’t already know its complex story, it has some real surprises.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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