Londonist loved the Reduced Shakespeare Company. A silly idea from what seemed like a gang of goofy American frat-boys, their Complete Works (Abridged) took the world by storm, and ended up sitting pretty in the West End for nearly 10 years.
When we learnt Adam Long, one of that RSC's founding fathers was taking on Dickens, but with songs, we were curious to say the least.
How the Dickens can you do justice to that remarkable caricaturist with only 5 lads on stage? Would covering all those novels descend too far into parody? Having reduced Wagner, shortened Star Wars and hewn the History of America, were Adam Long's shortenings wearing a bit, ahem, thin?
Well, it seems the boys behind the Reduced Shakespeare Company have grown up.
Dickens Unplugged is witty, charming, considered, gently playful and, with a stronger emphasis on the author's life as well as his works, aims a little deeper than the original treatment of the Bard's canon.
Billing themselves as "the biggest Charles Dickens Tribute Band in Santa Cruz", Long and his co-stars sing, dress up, drag up and dance their way through Dickens' unhappy spell at the Blacking Factory (despite winning Employee of the Month), his unsuccessful marriage to Catherine, ("I'll be glad to see the back of you, you self-centred dickhead," squeals Simon Jermond as Catherine, who's a delight in every dress), his relationship with actress Ellen Ternan, and a fair number, but not all, of Dickens' novels.
There's lots of knowing humour, with cheeky references from Titanic to Wicked, and a great send-up of Lionel Bart's saccharine Oliver! The loveable orphan croons "Where is lunch?", and Nancy's big moment comes when she sings "As long as he beats me..."
An extraordinarily versatile cast of just 5 players perform all the required roles, and instruments. Piano, accordion, trumpet, harmonica, suitcase (suitcase?), banjo, bass, and an astonishing array of guitars (with the best saved til last – we guarantee you've never seen Tiny Tim like this) are all called into service to provide the gentle bluesy, folksy, skiffley hoedown-laden score.
Dickens is described as a man of "anxiety and sorrow", concerned by the woes of the world; he's also portrayed as pompous, self-absorbed, arrogant, and strangely, American.
Be warned: truly devoted Dickens fans out there may find the show's shortenings one of its shortcomings. If you love Charlie D too much, it's possible seeing Old Curiosity Shop reduced to a quatrain and Bleak House (remember the Beeb's eight-hour adaptation?) dismissed as a 30-second song may fail to tickle your funny bone.
If so, it's possible, like Vick's Dickens, you could be taking yourself a little too seriously.
The guys onstage clearly love their muse, and as the show and its lead become more and more "unplugged" towards the end, you can't help be swept along by their infectious enthusiasm. There was a lovely moment last night when Long, (writer, director and actor) corpsed momentarily as his Ellen tried to cope with Gabriel Vick's increasingly manic old Charles.
The official blurb describes Dickens Unplugged as "Dickens meets Marx Brothers meet Sondheim meets Bob Dylan."
We'd rather you thought of it as Dickens meets Bill and Ted meets Tenacious D meets Monty Python: a hugely entertaining, likeable comedy in the best tradition of Edinburgh's Fringe, right here in London's West End.
Images show Gabriel Vick as Dickens, and full cast. Both pictures by Dan Wooller.
Dickens Unplugged is at the Comedy Theatre, booking until 22 Sept. For more information, see