As director Kevin Shaw admits, turning Dickens’ 700-page novel into a manageable-length family entertainment is no easy task and if you’re expecting every story strand to be treated with the respect it deserves, you’ll be disappointed – if that’s what you want, best re-read the novel instead of journeying to the Coliseum.
The most memorable adaptation of Dickens for the stage was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby back in 1982, which was a multi-part, eight-and-a half-hour, epic. Copperfield adapter Alastair Cording takes just over two hours (plus interval) to shoehorn in the basics and – in an attractively presented production - it is surprisingly successful.
That legendary RSC production showed the way as far as performance techniques are concerned. You gather an ensemble of experienced actors; allocate several per person; set a brisk pace; have an infinitely adaptable stage setting and use lots of props and costumes and add plenty of sound and light.
It worked then and it works again now. We join the narrative in Yarmouth, whence Peggotty has taken the young David to meet Ham and Emily and the others on that wild and fascinating seashore.
Back home, he endures the cruelty of his new step-father, then he’s off to more cruelty at boarding school, alleviated by, later turncoat, friend Steerforth; then on to London, Mr Micawber, more misfortune, on again to Dover and Aunt Betsy, Dora, Uriah Heep, Mr Dick, donkeys on the lawn, and so on. Most, in fact, if you haven’t read it for a while, of what you will remember from the original novel.
For the first few minutes, there is too much pace and the company come across as actors, rather than their characters, striving just a little too hard to establish themselves. But that soon passes and, as the adaptation gets into its stride, as the story strands find more depth and time to breathe, Dickens’ creations strut their stuff and catch your heart.
It’s an acting ensemble of eight and all have their moments. Jack Wilkinson, as David, does a really excellent job of holding the whole enterprise together with a laid back charm. Kieran Buckeridge, as both Steerforth and a so-creepy, hand-wringing, Uriah Heep, does both perfectly and Tim Treslove, as, in particular, Mr Micawber, is the other stand-out. But the whole company is very strong.
Shaw has pulled it all together extremely well. It’s technically impressive, with a set of designer trees and background forest (Alison Heffernan); very sympathetic and subtle light by Jane Barrek and interesting and atmospheric sound contributions by Lorna Munden.
I didn’t have high hopes of what looked like an Arts Council grant-justifying filler between the panto and the Ayckbourn and it’s good to find that it’s far more than that.