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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Nicholas Nickleby
Gielgud Theatre       Winter 2007-2008

This just might be the greatest theatrical experience of your lifetime.

I hate to be ambivalent and ambiguous in my judgements like that, but I'm about to gush for a few hundred words, so please bear with me.

In 1980 the Royal Shakespeare Company took on the daunting task of dramatising a Charles Dickens novel.

After workshops with the actors, David Edgar wrote a two-part adaptation totalling close to eight hours, and Trevor Nunn and John Caird directed what turned out to be one of the most memorable and exciting things I've seen in a lifetime of theatregoing.

I would have called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, except that lightning has struck twice.

From the Chichester Festival comes a new production, directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, with a slightly slimmed-down (Perhaps an hour has been cut in total, the most noticible loss being the whole subplot about Newman Noggs' neighbours and their uncle) text by David Edgar.

And it is as wonderful and exciting and entertaining and thrilling and moving and delightful and have I said wonderful yet as the original.

Go. You'll thank me.

The novel is typical Dickens - long and sprawling, with a string of episodes and digressions, and seemingly hundreds of colourful characters. At its centre are Nicholas and Kate Nickleby, whose father's death sends them to London for help from their rich uncle Ralph.

But he's a cold man who wants little to do with them, so Nicholas is sent off to teach at a horrific Yorkshire school and Kate left to be harassed by some debauched aristocrats.

Nicholas escapes from the school, taking with him the feeble-minded but intensely loyal boy Smike, and has a string of adventures, good and bad, on his way back to save his sister. Further adventures and revelations follow, leading to a bittersweet ending.

In adapting the novel David Edgar and the original directors came up with two devices which have been repeatedly copied by others since.

One is a story-telling technique that allows various members of the cast, and sometimes the characters themselves, to fill in the narrative gaps, and the other a system of doubling in which almost everyone in the cast plays four or five speaking roles in addition to various passers-by or crowd members, filling the stage with a seemingly unlimited number of characters.

That, and the general inventiveness and exuberance of the whole, makes for an epic quality that never overshadows the moving human stories at the centre.

For those who were there 27 years ago I could be boringly pedantic in comparing current actors with the originals. I'll limit myself to two cases of what I think are actual improvements.

For all my admiration of David Threlfall's Smike in 1980, I always thought he went overboard in the boy's tics and twitches. David Dawson's more moderated performance lets us see more of the boy behind the disability.

And while John Woodvine played Ralph with icy villainy, David Yelland's more oily baddy is a little less frightening and a lot more human.

Elsewhere, I could say I liked this actor in 1980 better or that one today better, but that's not the point. There isn't a serious misstep anywhere, and the staging by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks is as inventive, exciting and emotion-inspiring as the original.

Daniel Weyman's Nicholas might lack some of the steely anger of Roger Rees, but he shows us the provincial boy growing into a man of both morality and social polish without losing his humanity.

Hannah Yelland's Kate is such a strong woman that only the inherent sexism of the Nineteenth Century can keep her down, and Richard Bremmer's Newman Noggs, though perhaps just a bit more of a cartoon than I might wish, is still the loving friend rediscovering his backbone in the course of the story.

The rearranging of role assignments produces one nice new touch, as the three women with whom Nicholas is romantically connected (in one case, only in the lady's imagination) - the schoolmaster's daughter Fanny Squeers, the actress Miss Snevellicci and the damsel-in-distress Madeline Bray - are all played by Zoe Waites.

She not only distinguishes among the very different three, but sometimes has to switch back and forth as quickly as her wig-changers can manage.

This is a story of loves and loyalties, of betrayals and villainies, of virtue defeating evil but not able to triumph unambiguously. It is the story of characters you will watch as they grow and as you discover their potentials along with them.

It is frequently hilariously funny, and just as frequently deeply touching.

If you saw it in 1980, here is the chance you never thought you'd get to relive the experience. If you didn't, give yourself the gift now.

Gerald Berkowitz

(Note: Nicholas Nickleby is performed in two parts, on alternate nights or matinee-plus-evening. I very much recommend the all-in-one-day experience.)

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Review of Nicholas Nickleby - Gielgud Theatre 2007

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