Dickens With A Difference At Trafalgar Studios
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Dickens at Christmas: how drearily predictable, you might think. But not in this instance. Trafalgar Studios has chosen to shun the well-flogged redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge this holiday season, in favour of two contrasting and marginally complementary productions that draw on the writer’s more tragic and troubling narratives.
Dickens With A Difference is a double bill comprising Miss Havisham’s Expectations, by Di Sherlock, and James Swanton’s adaptation of Dickens’s own Sikes & Nancy. Both are solo performer pieces, and both take us on sinister and distinctly un-Christmassy journeys into Dickens’s darkest corners.
The former is an interesting if uneven extension of Great Expectations, in which Miss Havisham is extracted from the book and given centre-stage to present the story from her point of view, while having a fair few pops at Dickens himself. The jilted, bitter manipulator of the novel is present, but so is a far more fun narrator figure, with a sardonic wit and a peculiar penchant for half-baked magic tricks.
The conceit sometimes goes too far and at times is just a bit silly. But the hour passes quickly in the capable hands of Linda Marlowe. The EastEnders actress is both exciting and surprisingly funny in the role, matching the dangerous unpredictability in her wild eyes with sarcastic asides and an easy, conversational style. If nothing else, her deranged can-can is worth the ticket price alone.
Sikes & Nancy is an altogether different piece. Whereas Miss Havisham’s Expectations is definitely Dickens with a difference, the second half of the double bill is just plain old Dickens. Except it’s anything but plain.
Just as the writer himself did for his famous readings, James Swanton has adapted the chapters from Oliver Twist that tell of Nancy’s betrayal and her brutal murder by Sikes, and turned them into a self-contained story — one that he brings to life with incredible gusto and physicality.
The spindly actor bounds around the small stage, jumping from character to character in the blink of an eye, with an absurdly expressive face and an incredible voice that could lull you into a velvety sleep one minute and send shivers up your spine the next.
It’s all very fluid and impressively rehearsed, but the histrionics go a little too far and become quite distracting at points. If you can imagine Jim Carrey performing all the roles, you wouldn’t be too far off. Swanton certainly brings the story to life, but with each exaggerated performance strays dangerously close to caricature. Fagin, for example, sounds more like the Wicked Witch of the West than a predatory crook from the Victorian slums.
Nevertheless, it’s a pretty compelling — and unflinchingly bloody — piece of storytelling. And, unlike Miss Havisham’s Expectations, it doesn’t require any prior Dickens knowledge from its audience. Neither play is likely to find much appeal beyond the writer’s fan-base, but at least they offer some small counterweight to all the cheer and merriment on offer elsewhere. Bah humbug indeed.
By Dan Frost
Charles Dickens double bill, Miss Havisham's Expectations and Sikes & Nancy runs at Trafalgar Studios 2, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £30-£15, available from Trafalgar Studios. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary press ticket.
Last Updated 16 December 2014