The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Parts I and II

Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar
Chichester Festival production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
(2007)

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Theatrical memories are strange, fragile things that don’t always stand up well to the cold light of day – or of revival. In 1979 the RSC asked David Edgar to write a (massive) dramatisation of Dickens’ (massive) early novel Nicholas Nickleby. I remember seeing the televised version of this and in 1986 finally catching up with the a live stage performance when the RSC revived the production and brought it to Newcastle. I was, and remain, immensely impressed by the scale, the performances and the sheer element of dramatic management brought to bear on such a sprawling source. Despite the immense cultural differences that characterise the gap between the 1830s and the 1980s, Dickens wasn’t betrayed so much as illuminated by the two-night play. It may be impossible to glimpse the real world of early Victorian London, but I certainly felt I’d been given an insight into the Dickensian version of that world, and it came across as warm, positive and engaging.

Yes, I know some of the author’s most villainous characters and unpleasant circumstances can be found in this world, but their very blackness served to light up the human qualities that are eventually allowed to shine through. It was a feel-good night (two nights) at the theatre and if we cried at Smike’s death or shuddered at the brutality of Squeers, then that made the triumph of humane goodness all the more worthwhile.

Has the play changed, or have I? Seeing the Chichester Festival Theatre production I felt just as enthusiastic for the piece and the performances, not to mention the sheer concept and the brave scale of the endeavour, but I came away feeling that I’d seen something black and even cynical. Perhaps the past 20-odd years have done that to us all, allowing us to enjoy our happy endings only ironically and reminding us that it’s the philanthropic and selfless which are the disposable part of the human condition while the selfish and thoughtlessly destructive continue to fuel the engine of modern life. And I’m not sure now which side of this coin best reflects Dickens’s work – though I can understand why the current production has not, alas, proved so popular as the RSC’s more ebullient and overtly humorous original. Both present valid ways into the material, but what felt right in 1980 has now been inevitably compromised and damaged – just like many of Dickens’s most telling characters.

And that is what directors Jonathan Church and Philip Franks have gone for, offering a wonderfully entertaining entertainment while making the darks much more predominant than the lights. I don’t think I had ever before realised quite what prigs Nicholas and Kate are, unbending in their own self-images and, in the case of the latter, so deliberately, discreetly patronising that you want to smack her over the head with the nearest large prop.

This isn’t a criticism of Daniel Weyman or Hannah Yelland – their performances amply convey the sense of people who despite their vicissitudes, have got it right all along, and I know of few things more infuriating. But that’s how they are – the fixed centre of admirable correctness and rectitude, and one advantage of this version is that cold-hearted uncle Ralph Nickleby (the excellent David Yelland) emerges here not so much improbably icy as painfully blinkered. He’s damaged too, in a society that encourages his very inadequacies as admirable aids to self-interest and success, and Yelland’s moments of underplayed pain as his carapace cracks and he glimpses the lost possibilities are among the best things in the show.

I could have done with more of Abigail McKern’s Mrs Nickleby, infuriatingly opinionated, optimistic and silly. Watching her everso-correct children attempt to tactfully suppress her ebullient stupidity brought out the questions about character and energy which seem to be at the heart of this production.

David Dawson was lovely as Smike, but why wouldn’t he be? The role is a gift to anyone capable of tugging a heart-string, and Dawson never compromised it by making Smike more appealing or redeemable than he has to be. This is not a character for whom happy endings are available – he’s too damaged for restoration, not attractive in his state of physical and mental ineptitude and would doubtless have been a terrible burden to Nicholas had he survived. You feel that Dickens wrote his early but peaceful death with a sense of relief – there was nowhere for him to comfortably go except the grave. Dawson’s awkward, twisted Smike conveyed the painful sense of someone arrested and distorted but preserving the emotional integrity of a child. When he was happy it was sadder than when he was victimised, and watching his agonising attempts to find the right forms of expression for his thoughts was painful in all the right ways.

The essential, holding-it-all-together ensemble playing was fabulous, including lightning, swift changes of character and the occasional song. I wonder whether this style of theatre now looks rather 1970s and that its being out of the current mode might explain the less than rapturous response to the production? A great shame if that is the case, as it works spectacularly well, though I did find myself wishing for a more flexible mode of presentation than the Theatre Royal’s proscenium arch could provide.

And yes, the set-pieces did everything they were supposed to, from the queasy mixture of brutality and humour presented in the Dotheboys Hall sequence to the ebullience and eccentricity of the Crummles theatrical troupe (though even this was less overtly funny and more tinged with pain and loss than I remembered it). As ever, I wanted Nicholas and Smike to stay there, in the one place where they are both shown to be not just appreciated , but also capable of growth. There should be another Nicholas Nickleby in a parallel dimension wherein our hero whisks his put-upon sister and mother out of the chilly embrace of his uncle’s London world and into the extended family of the Crummles – but in this one he can’t because it would compromise that essential sense of propriety which is the unattractive core of the character. This is a Victorian world, and young gentlemen (far less their sisters) simply don’t run away to join the circus.

The look of the play is wonderful, with costumes right in period but, like the original illustrations to the novels, pushed gently towards caricature. I’ve never seen anyone wear the rather difficult style of the 1830s with more innate elegance that Hannah Yelland, whose Kate epitomised a kind of ravishing restraint that made the advances of the dastardly Sir Mulberry Hawk seem entirely explicable. At the other end of the scale (but with equally silly names) the Cheeryble brothers were got up like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as though to remind us that Dickens has to resort to something like pantomime in order to put a face to his vision of benevolence and thoroughly good nature.

The fact that action and characters veered between closely-observed, believable naturalism and stereotypical conventions designed to provoke predictable reactions was not a product of this play or this production – that’s in the nature of the novel itself. The fact that the Chichester company shied away from no aspect of this exaggerated range does them credit, though I suspect it may have left some part of the modern audience adrift as to the tone of their response. Even better, the production refused to neaten or sweeten the raw edges of Dickens’ vision or of where we might stand in relation to it today.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson