LITTLE NELL, ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Of all Dickens’ works this – originally a serial so gripping that American readers rushed the docks for the new edition – is such a farrago of preposterous, barnstorming picaresque sentimentality that the Irish leader Daniel O”Connell famously burst into tears at the ending, and threw it out of a train window. Oscar Wilde on the other hand said you’d need a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
Perfect for the tirelessly prolific duo of Common Ground – Julian Harris and Pat Whymark – to take up, shake about, and tour with their trademark combination of shoestring inventiveness and Whymark’s evocative music.
So we have Harries (who also designed the extremely portable one-night-at-a-time set) as Nell’s Grandfather . And, with a sub-Sewell accent, as the venal notary Mr Brass. There’s a splendid Eloise Kay as 13-year-old Nell, doubling entertainingly in the same frock, give or take a mob-cap or two, as a terrified Mrs Quilp and the downtrodden maid “Marchioness”. Joe Leat is a foul-spoken Scott, feckless brother Fred and others – most memorably the boot-faced Sally Brass, in a sort of clerical hat and world-beating deadpan scowl. Tristan Teller is among others a rather beguiling Dick Swiveller in purple velvet and high boots, and Ivan Wilkinson most memorable when being the villainous Quilp. Not perhaps quite as dwarfish or hunched as Dickens wanted him in those more robust days, but stubbily vigorous in his evildoing as he cheats the sweet pair out of their Curiosity Shop and provokes their tremendous road-trip across the Midlands encountering every kind of rogue, kindly helper, employer and entertainer dear to the heart of Charles D while the Quilpies plot and pursue from the London end.
My reaction formed a wavering graph: pleased at the framing of it in DIckens’ own wanderings through the London streets, dipping a bit in the first act as the Dickens rhetoric can feel less than convincing on modern lips, but rising to real solid pleasure in the second half. Much of this is to the credit of Whymark’s live music – deep double-bass, guitar, and occasional squeezebox weaving atmosphere and accompanying songs which have a sense both of folksong and Victorian parlour ballad. The schoolmaster’s story of fevers and the song in the Staffordshire potteries send a real shiver down the spine, evoking a suddenly vivid sense of place and time; Dickens’ poeticism suddenly becomes sincere, the villainy richer and nastier, the nuances of Grandfather’s dependency more obvious.
A rambling tale rambled to its conclusion. And I begin to suspect that Daniel O’Connell threw the serial out of that window as much in chagrin because it was over as in grief for the offstage demise of Nell. I often feel the same myself at the end of a good Le Carré.
In Ipswich next week 01473 211498
Touring on till 25 Nov: information 07928 765153 wwwcommongroundtc.co.uk