The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Peter Ackroyd
The Playhouse Theatre

Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens
Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens
Simon Callow in The Mystery of Charles Dickens

Simon Callow displays almost Olympian stamina and supreme acting expertise in this rich, intelligent and entertaining one man show, written by acclaimed Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd and directed by Richard Twyman.

The play sweeps elegantly through Dickens’s life, weaving in and out of biographic material and excerpts from classic Dickens characters, creating a mélange of fascinating fact and fiction. Callow holds the stage alone for a good hour and a half, performing as Dickens himself may have done at one of his great literary tours, giving a voice and physicality to a large number of well-known characters.

Wackford Squeers from Nicholas Nickleby is one such delightfully outrageous character portrayal, enacted hilariously by Callow who brings to life Squeers’s vicious and eminently practical views on learning: “We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it.”

The lighting (Nick Richings) is beautifully complementary to the onstage action, with the use of gauze and gobos to create the clouds and smog of London. The focal point of the simple yet elegant set (Christopher Woods) is a large picture frame almost matching the height and width of the stage. It suitably underlines the show to be a detailed portrait of Charles Dickens. However, another angled piece of picture frame cuts back across the bottom left hand corner, alluding perhaps to the chaotic and at times scandal-filled life of Dickens. Also to the blurred lines between fiction and reality apparently experienced by Dickens who, Callow tells us, often became almost entirely consumed by his writing.

Although Callow is undeniably able to carry the whole of this production with great success, at times the narrative would benefit from just a few more comedic characters from Dickens’s books, if only to showcase Callow’s amazing versatility and further emphasise Dickens’s extraordinary observations.

This is a wonderful celebration of Dickens’s life and works, tying into the bicentenary anniversary of Dickens's birth.

Reviewer: Anna Jones