Review by Matthew Taylor
What I like about the Pepper’s Ghost festive “Evening with” shows (this is the second one I’ve seen, after the Evening with Queen Victoria a few years back) is that they deliver a whole atmospheric event throughout the building, not just in the Theatre space. If you arrive in time you’re treated to mince pies, mulled wine and music down in the Bar and Gallery space at Creed Street Theatre, and the proliferation of various Victorian characters wandering around makes you feel anachronistically guilty for even thinking of getting your smartphone out.
For me, as a virtual newcomer to the work of Dickens – apart from the classic musical of “Oliver!” of course! – I was relieved at the structure of the actual performance. A TV Interviewer (Caroline Mann) introduced the man Charles Dickens himself (the always watchable Pepper’s Ghost regular Bill Handley) and proceeded to talk him through his life and writing career: a kind of fantasy ‘This Is Your Life’. Mike Rawlinson’s beautifully balanced script allowed those of us who didn’t have much pre-existing Dickens knowledge a reassuring way into the story of the man, and further on into the stories of the man.
So then the show itself dipped in and out of Dickens’ novels, presenting scenes and direct recitations from his impressive body of work. The Interviewer pulled no punches when pressing Mr Dickens on some of the more controversial aspects of his life – his close relationships with other women than his wife, for one – and the writer responded with a believable mixture of outrage and reluctant culpability.
Having only ever read one Dickens novel (the aforementioned “Oliver Twist”) I did get a little confused on occasion regarding the extracts being brought to life – who some of the characters were and what the back story was supposed to be – but in fact, far from being a weakness in the production it made me want to go off and actually read the entire books themselves. So if the intention was to turn more people on to Dickens it certainly succeeded with me.
The various scenes were staged with confidence and never overstayed their welcome – in fact I must also give praise to the Stage Crew, often unsung in reviews but carrying out their scenery changes quietly and efficiently and never drawing focus from the Interviewer and Mr Dickens.
The more comic set pieces (especially Sam Weller in court – from “The Pickwick Papers”) were played with a cheerful gusto and the contrasting darker side of Dickens’ Victorian London with compelling menace. In the middle of the show, Ian Cowell in particular had an excellent run, playing Daniel Quilp, Wackford Squeers and Fagin in quick succession and bringing an impressive variety of differing flavours to those three less-than-savoury characters.
Near the end of the show, we were also given a poignant reminder of why we so often identify Dickens with Christmas, as Jocelyn Rose read a mesmerising passage from “A Christmas Carol”, putting us all in a very festive mood, crowned by the entire cast singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” to close. Another very enjoyable – and educational! – Yuletide treat from Pepper’s Ghost.