As a story, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby needs little introduction. The comic novel, originally published as a serial, has a lasting reputation that makes it one of the great pieces of Victorian literature. David Edgar’s “dramatic triumph” of an adaptation, premiered in 1980, has equally become a theatrical classic.
The contemporary, indeed bare setting for this production echoed the emotional power of many of Dickens’ finest novels. The actors were encased in the darkness of a black-drape set which was bordered by rectangular wooden arches that served as entrances (and exits). This scheme was echoed in the gold picture frame, used by the various characters as a device to emphasise a sense of ‘otherness’, of viewing the world from a fresh perspective just as Dickens’ dark, comic style made his works so popular whilst informing the Victorian middle and upper classes of the real plight of the poor.
Charlie Oldham portrayed an undoubtedly likeable Nickleby. His ability to comment upon the action as ‘Nickleby, the observer’ and then take part in the action as ‘Nickleby, the character’ enabled the audience to view the story objectively whilst fully engaged with the action. Indeed, it was easy to empathise with the concern he showed for all the children and for Smike at Wackford Squeers’ ghastly school and to feel horror, too, at the events that befell Nickleby after the death of his father, highlighted by George Johnson’s enthusiastic portrayal of the evil Uncle into whose custody the unfortunate Nicholas was given.
Miles Borrett, as Smike, also caught the audience’s imagination. His captivating glances and childish air were pervaded by a sense of sorrow that cast its spell on the audience. Harry Spencer-Philips conveyed a loveable Newman Noggs, capturing perfectly Noggs’ erratic behaviour and good nature; and Katie Digby was an impressive Kate Nickleby, her self-assurance on stage mirroring the new-found confidence of women that was emerging in the Victorian era.
It was good, too, to see some of the new acting talent at Hurst in action. Alex Catlin-Freytag took on the three roles of Mr Mantalini, Mr Crowl and a political vulture and displayed a great gift for comedy; one might well say that his stage debut was “demn’d satisfactory”! The comic rapport between Catlin-Freytag and on-stage partner Maddie Leeper, created a real impact. Another newcomer, Martha Powell, was a natural on stage in the role of Fanny Squeers, and aided by her relationship with best friend and arch-rival Tilda Price (Abby Denny) added much to the comedy in the play. Two other 'new' actors, Polly Hobbs and Georgia James made up the rest of this grotesque family, headed by Will Somerset, whose make-up also went down a storm. Quality and confidence was found in all members of the cast, and this allowed the tensions between the comedy and tragedy to flow so well. The audience found themselves alternating between fits of laughter and deep emotions.
Towards the end of the first night a few hitches could not stop the play culminating in a stellar finale, that was only topped by the loud and appreciative applause.
Pictures to follow
24 May 2013