HAVE A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS!
A Night-In at the Theatre…
It’s a measure of Dickens’ greatness that so many of our best writers and actors remain fascinated as much by the man as by his writing. The flamboyant showman side of his nature is a gift for dramatic presentations of his life. And Simon Callow’s exuberant and flamboyant style is a perfect match for Dickens’ own.
Written as a vehicle for Callow by Peter Ackroyd, Callow describes this one-man performance as a ‘living biography’. Ackroyd, of course, has written a huge ‘proper’ biography of Dickens. Unfortunately, it is so
tedious detailed that I gave up on it when Dickens had only reached about the age of 10 by page 180 or so – and that was the abridged version! However, it does mean he knows his stuff about The Great Man’s life, and having to meet the requirements of a running time of roughly an hour and a half seems to have concentrated his mind wonderfully.
‘Heads, heads – take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place – dangerous work – other day – five children – mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches – forgot the arch – crash – knock – children look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in – head of a family off – shocking, shocking!’
For Dickens’ geeks like myself, there are no great revelations in this. It’s a fairly standard run-through of Dickens’ life – the blacking factory, the marriage, the death of the sister-in-law, the writing success, his separation from his wife, Ellen Ternan, his reading tours. If it were only a biography it would be worthwhile and interesting. What brings it to life is Callow’s performance of excerpts from the various books in the first half and, in the second, the flavour he gives of what it might have been like to have attended one of Dickens’ own performances.
There’s a good mix of comedy and tragedy in the readings – from Mr Jingle of Pickwick Papers and Mr Crummles of Nicholas Nickleby, to poor little Oliver Twist, made marginally less simperingly nauseating than usual by Callow’s performance of him as he leaves the workhouse, and a stunning performance of the Bill Sykes and Nancy murder scene at the end, modelled on Dickens own performance of it. Along the way we pop into Bleak House, get a quick blast of Uriah Heep, a nicely judged physical depiction of Sairey Gamp etc etc.
The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.
Filmed in front of a live audience at The Albery Theatre in London in 2002, the DVD itself is pretty basic. There are no subtitles and the only extra is a very brief snippet of Callow talking about the play. But the combination of Callow’s brilliant performance and Dickens’ immortal words makes this a wonderful night-in at the theatre. Remember to order interval drinks before the performance starts, then sit back and… Have a Dickens of a Christmas!