The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, Adapted and Directed by Hedda Bird, Oxford Theatre Guild.
Oxford Playhouse Saturday 12th March 2022
Dickens's third novel, perhaps the funniest in the English language, is a rich balance of light and dark. It is hard to over-praise the play that has been created from it in the reopened Playhouse. It mingles sweet dirt, smart gulling and coxcombry into a wonderful theatrical confection. It thrives on malice and savagery but does not make them palatable. This is the heart of our native humour, a vein of bitter, harsh venom: Dickens angry caricatures take a central place in our comic literature. Surprisingly, there's a festive kind of feel to this 'Nicholas Nickleby' in spite of the subject matter.
There is such a thing as a good episodic play: the book is such a thing, but too long winded for the theatre. Here we have a brilliant adaptation by a playwright Hedda Bird, new to the public arena. David Edgar prepared a version for a production at the Chichester Festival, years ago, but this is better. Ms Bird has generously shortened the interminable end of the novel in which our Nicholas finds happiness. I have not lost my aesthetic qualms about adaptations, but it would be a pretty mean spirit who didn't acknowledge that this revival will displace the former versions, and be widely taken up. It captures the heart and the humour of Dickens's great novel, celebrating the resilience of the human spirit in the face of poverty and corruption, as well as the redemptive power of theatre.
Like bead after bead, the episodes created by Ms Bird, who also directs, click together upon the connecting string, which is chicanery and chiselry mingled with tragedy. The sentiment is not sentimental, but in a world of plague and war increasingly real. Smike could easily be a Ukrainian refugee in Johnson’s little England. Singly or in pairs, the gulls are drawn to the chisellers to be snared and trimmed. What is piquant, they like it: humble and gladdened, they depart penniless, sometimes upon a servile errand for their cheaters. They have come in search of panaceas, of the Philosopher’s Stone, and they are beguiled by wealthy bankers and corrupt business men and avaricious and mendacious aristocrats, like the rentier capitalists of the 22nd century.
Unlike our current age there are good people. Charles and Ned Cheeryble, identical twin brothers, wealthy "German-merchants" (merchants who trade internationally) who are as magnanimous as they are jovial. Remembering their humble beginnings, they spend much of their time doing charity work and helping those in need. This generosity leads them to give Nicholas a job and provide for his family, and almost single-handedly revive his faith in the goodness of man. They become key figures in the development of Ralph's defeat and the Nicklebys' happy ending, in a way unimaginable in an age of Gates, Bezos, Musk and the anonymous billionaires who controls our lives and politicians, and sponsor our wars.
Ms Bird has turned the book on its head, making the Crummles troupe the epicentre, reversing the two years of darkened theatres and bringing the joy of the circus back into the theatre. Not just the circus but also pantomime; a sudden turn may satisfy wish fulfilment in melodrama. This was made more palpable by the fact the OTG is an amateur group, performing for free, without the pretensions of a professional ensemble. As a result the overacting was fun, and the main leads properly serious and understated, devoid of egotistical posturing. The real people who are acting are not only well cast, but well typecast. Each one by physical appearance alone replaces a page or more of Dickens's descriptions. All delivered, but special mention must be made of the sombre and tragic figure of Ralph Nickleby, played by so propitiously by Simon Vail, Niall McDaid as Nickleby who the whole play revolves around, Smike, so heart reningly created by Jenny Griffiths. Kate, Squeers and Mrs Squeers, Fanny, the Mantallinis, Sir Mulberry and his chums, and the Wititterly’s will displace memories of earlier performance. The last-minute stand-in as Newman Noggs was equally real and piquant, with his sheaves of text to remind him of his lines. All in the large cast delivered, and are to be congratulated. The sets were simple, but like all simple sets allowed the audiences imagination to richly fill the gaps, with a technical performance that was flawless.
What animates the story is Dickens's outrage, and his good heart. In Nicholas Nickleby we find him using fiction like journalism. This production is so richly joyous, so immoderately rife with pleasure, drama, colour and entertainment, so life-enhancing, yea-saying and fecund, so—in one word which embraces all these and more—it is so Dickensian… It is a celebration of love and justice that is true to the spirit of Dickens’s belief that those are the fulcrums on which the universe is moved, and the consequence is that we come out not merely delighted but strengthened, not just entertained but uplifted, not only affected but changed. Dickens strives for an unattainable inclusiveness which combines romance, melodrama, tragedy, and the different moods associated with each. But despite the conflicting modes of pantomime, sentimental romance, comic gothicism, melodrama, and fairy-tale fantasy and motifs come together in the vibrancy and thematic unity of this outstanding pproduction of Nicholas Nickleby.
Mark Alexander Oxford 2022