It’s beautifully written and the story is a fascinating one. But, just as Dickens found fictions more palatable than facts, the cleverness of the way that the interlocking dramas kaleidoscope centre-stage hides a certain element which is merely two-dimensional. Like many of Dickens’ own characters, these are sometimes archetypes rather than people. Some – but not all – of the time. The author cares for them too much.
Max Stafford-Clark’s production sweeps us from one encounter to another on a set which Lucy Osborne has deliberately made as crowded as any mid-Victorian drawing-room. The women’s crinolines brush against padded furniture; the men’s formal waistcoats constrict the freedoms for which they hanker. Threaded through it all is the music of Thomas Moore, from “The minstrel boy” to “The last rose of summer” and a hint of Mendelssohn. The younger Dickens children are rod puppets, skillfully realised by Polly Beestone.
Dickens is a bravura part, and David Rintoul inhabits it extremely well; this is a man of great personality as well as equally enormous flaws and you can believe in him as a creative as well as destructive force. Niamh Cusack matches him as Catherine, taking the blame for a fecundity which has destroyed her looks and so desperate to regain the deep love which perhaps had never ben hers in the first place. There’s steel in Kathryn O’Reilly as Georgie (Georgina), less a sister to Catherine than a sister-in-law to Dickens.
The one who gets away is daughter Kate (Lorna Stuart). She defies her father with a pretty determination which reflects his own in order to marry the man she wants. The play requires Stuart to double as Ellen Ternan, the young professional actress with whom Dickens had a relationship lasting for more than a decade. I found her Kate the more credible of the two girls. Also manipulated by his father is Walter (Alastair Mavor), nicely fleshed out as weaker than his sister for all his adolescent desirings.
Involved simply by their physical presence in the Dickens household are the Irish maid Aggie and Andersen himself. The country-girl servant can be a cliché but Lisa Kerr makes this orphan of the Great Famine credible as she accepts that doing what comes naturally has a price attached. It’s clever casting to make Andersen visibly as well as linguistically an outsider. Danny Sapani makes Andersen’s lopsided view of this so-untypical English household completely genuine. You smile as he stumbles from one misapprehension to the next but you don’t laugh at him. There’s more than one sort of genius. On occasion it turns pain into pleasure. Or the other way round.