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  The Theatreguide.London Review


Andersen's English
Hampstead Theatre  Spring 2010

In 1857 Hans Christian Andersen visited Charles Dickens and his family, staying on a little longer than his hosts might have wished. It was a tension-filled time, as Dickens was preparing to leave his wife, but Andersen, with limited English and less sensitivity to the nuances of English behaviour, saw none of this.

That much we get from a programme note to Sebastian Berry's new play, and the play itself has very little more to tell us.

As directed by Max Stafford-Clark, Dickens is played by David Rintoul as a cold and egotistical monster, given to delivering the most casual conversations as if they were after-dinner speeches and bustling off in a rage any time anyone fails to cater instantly to his every whim, while Danny Sapani's Andersen is never much more than a butt of easy comedy with his fractured English and generally confused expression.

Indeed, each character is written and directed on a single note. Dickens rages, Andersen bumbles, Niamh Cusack's Mrs. Dickens weeps, Alastair Mavor as son Walter frets at being sent off to the Army in India, and so on.

Once the basic situation is established, nothing new happens and nothing is illuminated about the historical figures or their situation, and the play just lumbers along, repeating its jokes about Andersen's attempts to communicate or its moments of pity for poor Mrs. D.

Perhaps tellingly, it is the characters who we know least about - that is, who the playwright had to work harder to invent - who come across as most human and who give their actors the best chance to register.

Niamh Cusack may do little more than be put-upon, but she creates the sense of a real human experience we can sympathise with. Lorna Stuart has some sprightly moments as the Dickens daughter who actually stands up to her father, and Lisa Kerr is perky as a fictional Irish maid.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Andersen's English - Hampstead 2010