The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar
A Chichester Festival Theatre production
Gielgud Theatre
(2007)

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Holidays and other commitments meant that I had to miss this production at Chichester two years running, so I was very pleased to be able to catch up with it in London and it deserved the anticipation. Directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, this is the third Chichester production to transfer to the West End this year, following David Suchet in The Last Confession, and opening at the Gielgud immediately after Patrick Stewart in the most innovative and thrilling Macbeth ever.

The RSC’s production in 1980, by Trevor Nunn and John Card, has been re-written and reduced in length by author David Edgar – the original eight and a half hours are now about six and a half, played over two performances. Each is complete in itself, but it is much more gratifying to see both and to follow the story to its end, as it switches from horrendous cruelty and abject poverty to kindness, generosity and love – from tragedy to comedy and back, guaranteeing an emotional roller coaster ride.

Seen one after the other, would six and a half hours with three short intervals seem too long? Not a bit of it! The story bowls along at a cracking pace, with this superb company taking turns to supply the narrative, and the story is so gripping that it is easy to lose all sense of time.

Left destitute by the death of their father, Nicholas Nickleby with his sister and mother leave their home in rural Devon and travel to London to throw themselves on the mercy of Uncle Ralph – a man who has grown rich by having no mercy at all. Nicholas is soon despatched to teach at a school in Yorkshire, Kate to work in a milliners (although Uncle Ralph has more sinister plans in store for her) and Mrs. Nickleby, being of little use to him, is pathetically grateful to accept the lodging offered, although it turns out to be a squalid room in the notoriously seamy East End of London.

The characters are exaggerated, but not one-dimensional. Headmaster of Dotheboys Hall Wackford Squeers (Pip Donaghy), may be intensely cruel to the boys in his ‘care’, but he appears to have a loving relationship with his wife and son. Even David Yelland’s heartless Uncle Ralph has qualms about abandoning his niece Kate (real life daughter Hannah) to the amorous attentions of his rich associates and wonders how things might have turned out had his brother been a different character, while Nicholas (Daniel Weyman) and Kate are almost too morally upright and virtuous, but both have a temper and a streak of violence when roused.

Kindness is found in unexpected places and is not related to wealth or the lack of same. Newman Noggs (Richard Bremmer), cringing (and finger cracking) clerk to Ralph, surreptitiously helps out at every turn. Rough and uncouth Browdie (Bob Barrett) is lacking in social manners, but he gives Nicholas a guinea for food on his journey to London although, being a Yorkshire man, expects any surplus to be returned to him. The affluent comical twin brothers, Charles and Ned Cheeryble (Wayne Cater and David Hellist), offer largesse and bonhomie at the drop of a hat, while the travelling company of actors, the Crummles, take Nicholas and his protégé to their hearts – the first performance ends with this company giving a preposterously hilarious version of Romeo and Juliet where all the corpses amazingly regain life – how about that for a happy ending?

Only an hour and a half later it is Part 2, and it seemed that most people had returned as they knew immediately which character to boo and which to cheer – pantomime season is upon us! The cast did a rapid-fire synopsis of “the story so far” – receiving a well-deserved round of applause – and the tale continued.

The action moves between London, Portsmouth, the terrible school in Yorkshire and the Nicklebys’ rural home in Devon taking in London street life, opera house, coffee house etc. With the backdrop of Simon Higglett’s higgledy-piggledy set, a jumble of houses, staircases, balconies, ropes and ladders, it took little more than a re-arrangement of chairs and tables to form the various venues.

The twenty seven actors almost all play multiple and very diverse roles – all fully demonstrating their versatility. Smike, the boy rescued by Nicholas from the ‘care’ of Squeers, and crippled in both mind and body, is played most heartrendingly by David Dawson. The final revelation of the identity of his father caused the whole audience to hold its breath in shock.

Of course it received a standing ovation and many curtain calls – appreciated by every member of the audience.

Only 66 performances – 33 of each part. Catch it before it transfers to Toronto, although even then it would be worth the journey.

Gail Nina Anderson reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Reviewer: Sheila Connor