Dickens Abridged**** (Arts Theatre, 2 December 2013)

Posted: December 3, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

The news that a co-founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company would be turning his attentions towards another of Britain’s literary giants has created great curiosity and high expectations. If Adam Long could whisk us through the Bard’s complete works in a couple of hours, the canon of Charles Dickens should present no problems at all, but does it leave us, like Oliver Twist, begging for more? The show’s opening song informs us that “Shakespeare was good but Charlie was better” and a group of five American hicks proceed to explain their reasoning, looking at the author and his works with American eyes throughout. Maybe Long decided that we British take our national institutions too seriously to poke irreverent fun at them as American may do, or maybe he simply sought consistency with the show’s musical style (rockabilly with touches of Southern blues) which is itself inconsistent with the subject matter. However, such analysis hardly matters when things get into full flow. During the show’s high points all of the ingredients, however odd, mix together perfectly. The plot of Oliver Twist takes barely a minute to recount in an an original song that makes several nods towards Lionel Bart; the sprawling Little Dorrit is condensed into a five-line limerick; Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations fly by at breakneck speed and it is mostly splendid fun. No mention is made of Dickens the social reformer or Dickens the biting satirist of the institutions of the Victorian age, but these things would not bring laughs. The only changes in tone come when scenes from Dickens’ own life are depicted. David Copperfield is seen as autobiographical and too much of the first half of the show is devoted to it, with parallels to Dickens’ life being interwoven with the novel. Heap and Micawber appear in order to berate the author for representing them so unsympathetically, very cleverly merging fact and fiction, but, otherwise, Long finds it difficult to draw any humour from the true story. It seems that Dickens had marital difficulties and an unhealthy fondness for a violent scene in Twist, but there is little else to interest us or to make us laugh and these scenes, which continue intermittently throughout, prove to be something of a millstone around the show’s neck. The second half begins well with an amusing Nicholas Nickleby, followed by a hilarious A Tale of Two Cities (“I’m very nervous as this will be my first decapitation”), leaving the biggest crowd-pleaser until last with an uproarious spoof of A Christmas Carol, sending everyone home full of seasonal spirit. Damian Humbley, is excellent as the “American” Dickens and several other characters, very ably supported by Gerard Carey, Matthew Hendrickson, Kit Orton and Jon Robyns, who share all the roles between them. Having an all-male cast, the show is never shy about getting cheep laughs from bringing on bearded men in drag whenever more original jokes run dry. There is a great deal more to like about Dickens Abridged than there is to dislike. Sometimes it hits sticky patches, occasionally it is repetitive, but, when it is funny, which is for much of the time, it is very funny indeed. Overall, this is up there with the best entertainments on offer this Christmas.

thepublicreview_hor_web copy

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