22 June 2019
In the recent annals of British Theatre there are probably few entries which make as fascinating reading as the history of ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’, David Edgar’s 1980 adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens. In his own words, Edgar recalls ‘the reviews had been grudging to hostile’. Played in two parts and at some considerable length, it is an epic – the binge-watching experience of the theatre-going audience. Despite the critics, the public loved it.
Packed with extraordinary characters and a plot of some complexity, but with strong threads to hold it together, the production of the play is an enormous and glorious challenge for any company. Thus, its choice as the final production by the graduating students of The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, is offering them a chance to move on from the School with a bang.
Dickens’ social commentaries continually have resonance where greed and poverty live side by side and issues such as child abuse, alcoholism and corruption are never far from the surface; this tale features them all in some way.
The crux to the narrative is the inherent love within Nicholas’s own, broken, family and the bonds they – and Nicholas in particular – make beyond. This is what drives the piece and creates the excitement and emotion within the story.
A multi-level set, designed by MA student Oscar Selfridge, provides variety for the directors to arrange action and give a viewpoint for the cast who deliver lines of narration as well as in character (and in most cases this is more than one – indeed, as many as seven) they portray. Not a single member of the backstage crew is seen as the cast are also responsible for moving furniture and props on and off stage, which they manage with speed and precision. There is a huge amount for them to do.
The lighting by Rob Casey is atmospheric, and the use of individual footlights creates some lovely shadows and highlights. At times there is a tendency to get too close to dark and dingy Victorian London and shadows are cast over too many faces. Costumes are excellent – and there are a lot of them – the designs of MA student Alana Ashley offering up Victoriana with a twist or two; detailed, precise and using an effective colour palate to identify sectors of the story – a job very well done.
The original production had a musical score by Stephen Oliver. It included a number of songs which have been retained by this production and which are a joy to hear. Much of the rest of the incidental music has been discarded in favour of newly composed work by Andy Jenks. The result is something of a mish-mash of styles – atmospheric underscoring with abstract sounds, gives way to loud strings and then more robust tunes interspersed with some of Oliver’s work (including one jarring arrangement which sounds like it is performed on a Bontempi organ) – it lacks continuity and fluidity and doesn’t always enhance the action – occasionally silence would have been a better option.
All the major characters follow a considerable arc throughout the action as they face their trials and tribulations. The challenge of the actor playing Nicholas is to carry the story through for the audience, whilst remaining likeable and not too much of a goody-goody. In this respect Kel Matsena succeeds. However, his rather unique style of speech – over-enunciation and carefully placed of delivery – impedes his spontaneity and makes him sound rather ‘read’ and disconnected from those he speaks with. In the pivotal role of the down-trodden Smike, Oscar Porter, certainly looks the part, but he underplays to an extent that he is almost rendered invisible at times. There should be a unique bond between Nicholas and Smike which is at the heart of the story, but there was too little connection and energy between the actors which dilutes much of the emotion. Likewise, I am not sure why the thread of Smike falling in love with Kate Nickleby was ignored – he barely looks at her – again a major emotional bullet misfired. The result is that the death of Smike is nowhere near as traumatic as it should be.
Eva O’Hara is a strong Kate and Lydia Gard a wonderfully dotty Mrs Nickleby. Freddy Sawyer a rather muted Noggs, though his very angular body is a nod to the original Phiz illustration of the character. The vile Squeers family is headed up by a tremendous performance by Louis J Rhone as Wackford – a man who looks like he is on the edge of mania at times – terrifying. Equally his wife, as portrayed by Moronke Akinola is not to be messed with. A very funny turn by Anna-Kate Golding as Fanny Squeers is complimented by Rosie Taylor-Ritson’s Tilda Price which she doubles with The Infant Phenomenon – excellent work. As the bluff John Browdie, Charlie Layburn is certainly one to look out for – fine work from this actor. Also, remember the name Tom Briggs – who makes the most of his seven roles and is spot-on with the wonderful Mr Mantalini, and hearty Frank Cheeryble – fabulous. The Cheeryble twins are gems of parts and Jonathan Oldfield and Lawrence Haynes are right on the money – so much evidence here of the two actors working hard together and the result is a chemistry and connection which is lacking elsewhere.
Finnbar Hayman’s Arthur Gride is guaranteed to make your skin crawl and in his other roles he shows great versatility and Holly Carpenter makes the most of twin grotesque’s Miss Knag and the extraordinary Peg Sliderskew. I loved Mr Snawley, as played by Sam Henderson, his voice needs to be heard to be believed. Amongst the ‘theatricals’ there is much to admire, from Jason Imlach’s delightfully Gallic Folair (he impresses in all his other roles too) to the rather camp Crummles boys of Shane David-Joseph and the aforementioned Tom Briggs. Overseeing all is the wonderful matriarch, Mrs Crummles, a delightfully fruity performance from Emer Heatley.
Dominating proceedings throughout is Will Fletcher as Ralph Nickleby, a character with the most complex journey of any others in the story. It is an ‘onion’ role which requires layers to be gradually shed over the course of the action. Fletcher is masterful and cleverly achieves the feat of developing from an almost pantomime villain to gaining the sympathies of the audience as the full realisation of his greed and selfishness come to light. It is a lonely role and it is performed with depth and maturity – you will not see it played much better.
This is such a company play where every actor relies on all the others throughout to achieve the end result. As such, you cannot praise them enough in the achievement of mounting the production. Praise too for directors Jenny Stephens and Geoffrey Brumlick for bringing this masterpiece to the stage again and giving the actors and backstage crew the privilege and memory of being involved in it. From the audience point of view, this is not a bus that comes around very often and for those that boarded it, they will be very pleased they did.
The seven and a half hours at the Bristol Old Vic passed remarkably quickly, such is the strength of Edgar’s adaptation. I would have loved to have been more emotionally engaged with the production, but I stand by in admiration at the overall result and will watch out keenly for some of those involved in their future careers.
CREDITS (IN BRIEF)
MOFETOLUWA AKANDE – MISS LA CREEVY
MORONKE AKINOLA – MRS SQUEERS
CUDJOE ASARE – BROOKER
TOM BRIGGS – MR MANTALINI
HOLLY CARPENTER – MISS KNAG
SHANE DAVID-JOSEPH – LORD VERISOPHT
WILL FLETCHER – RALPH NICKLEBY
LYDIA GARD – MRS NICKLEBY
ANNA-KATE GOLDING – FANNY SQUEERS
FINNBAR HAYMAN – ARTHUR GRIDE
LAWRENCE HAYNES – NED CHEERYBLE
EMER HEATLEY – MRS CRUMMLES
SAM HENDERSON – MR SNAWLEY
JASON IMLACH – MR FOLAIR
KARLA KAUCKY – MRS WITITTERLEY
CHARLIE LAYBURN – JOHN BROWDIE
KEL MATSENA – NICHOLAS NICKLEBY
EVA O’HARA – KATE NICKLEBY
JONATHAN OLDFIELD – VINCENT CRUMMLES
HEIDI PARSONS – MADELINE BRAY
OSCAR PORTER – SMIKE
LOUIS J RHONE – MR SQUEERS
FREDDY SAWYER – NEWMAN NOGGS
ROSIE TAYLOR-RITSON – TILDA PRICE
BESHLIE THORP – MADAME MANTALINI
SOPHIE WALTER – MISS SNEVELLICCI
ADAPTATION BY DAVID EDGAR
DIRECTORS – JENNY STEPHENS & GEOFFREY BRUMLICK
SET DESIGNER – OSCAR SELFRIDGE
COSTUME DESIGNER – ALANA ASHLEY
LIGHTING DESIGNER – ROB CASEY
SOUND DESIGNER – EVIE NICHOLS
COMPOSERS – STEPHEN OLIVER & ANDY JENKS
PHOTOGRAPHY – MARK DAWSON