Wednesday 27th February
There's a terrific sense
of culture-shock in the opening moments of Red Shift's brilliant
stage version of Nicholas Nickleby,
briefly on tour in Scotland.
When we think of Dickens, we automatically think of Victoriana;
dark rooms, thick fogs, women in bonnets, men in black. Red Shift's
version, though, startles us instantly into awareness by adopting
the imagery and soundscape of a period that, on the face of it,
could hardly be more different: the postwar 1950's, all decent
chaps in Fairisle sweaters and girls in flowered dresses, jolly
British humour on the radio, Ideal Homes exhibitions full of
bright modern design, and the first vibrations of rock and roll
in teenage bedrooms accross the nation.
Yet, if we deconstruct what Nicholas Nickleby is all about
then it begins to be clear why Jonathan Holloway's brilliant
production makes such sense. If Dickens's angry novels marked
the beginning of the great British rejection of the laissez-faire
cruelty and cash-driven indecency of the early industrial revolution,
then the postwar period marked the ultimate triumph of that rejection,
the moment when, as in Dickens's novel, people finally rose up
and rejected the old sado-masochistic culture of Ralph Nickleby
and Wackford Squeers. Doubling and trebling their parts, wearing
ridiculous wigs and simple signature costumes, Holloway's fine,
seven-strong company lead us through Dickens's complex story
with immense understanding and passion.
As in the novel, the ending is a shade diffuse and long-drawn-out.
But that's a small flaw in this brilliant tribute to a great
novelist who was also a mighty campaigner for social compassion;
and to the period in British history that was his best legacy.
THE HERALD, SCOTLAND
The heritage industry
being what it is, we all love Dickens. Especially at Christmas,
when his dewy-eyed black-and-white liberalism warms the hardest
heart into subscribing to whatever good cause is going. Television's
already on the case with this, it's rash of adaptations giving
a gritty counterpoint to the posh-tosh of the petticoat-clad
mini-series of yore, as well as a sturdier political consiousness.
And while onstage this may be Red Shift's first stab at Dickens,
director Jonathan Holloway has long plundered from the library
of lit-crit set-text canon to create what Reader's Digest might
call "annotated classics". Essentially, this keeps
the story in tact but whips out the paid-by-the-word boring bits
in a pop-up style designed to keep the younger viewer alert.
So here's Chuck's 750 page opus transposed to slicked-back 1950's
Britain, a utilitarian world on the cusp, peopled with stiff-upper-lipped
heroes of a bland matinee-idol persuasion, prim little sisters
taken advantage of by a quartet of upper-class cads at the local
gentleman's club, and well-fed and physically adept floozies
who wouldn't seem out of place in an Andrew Davies version of
events. Meanwhile, Housewive's Choice fiddles its merry
way towards the empire's last gasp while the welfare state and
rock 'n' roll wait in the wings of the never-had-it-so-good years.
With his tank-top and his high-fallutin' if somewhat wussy self-righteousness
it can't be too long before our Nick signs up with the smart
but casual angry-young-man set that begat the chattering classes.
Holloway and his seven actors have wrought a clever and stylish
cartoon re-appropriation from impossibly dense raw material,
which, if a tad too brisk, still suggests the possibility of