The Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre)
Where: West End
10 June 2008 WOS Rating: Average Reader Rating: Reader Reviews: View and add to our user reviews Paying homage seems to be fashionable in the West End at the moment.There are entire musicals based on the collected works of boy bands; Buddy is virtually a fixture; The 39 Steps gives a hilarious account of Hitchcock’s film of the Richard Hannay novel and Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter respects David Lean’s celebration of frustrated love while giving it a new, very funny, dimension. And until recently, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), charging through all the plays in under two hours, seemed immovable. This is no longer in residence at the Criterion, but fans desperate for a joky American show based on a British classical author can relax: has opened just down the road at the Comedy. Dickens Unplugged
Author and director
Adam Long, who was also responsible for the potted Shakespeare, spells out his devotion to his new subject in a programme note. He is, apparently, well and truly hooked. He quotes rather sweetly a poem by a writer of American westerns which describes cowboys sitting around a fire out on the prairie listening to a reading of The Old Curiosity Shop. That’s some picture; did the cowpokes, one wonders, weep into their beans, slobber down their chaps at the death of Little Nell? Perhaps at any rate this accounts for the country-and-western tone to some of the music in . Dickens Unplugged
I’m not sure how Dickens was plugged before Long and Co came on the scene, but their term can’t possibly imply a withdrawal of energy. The five performers, including Long himself, get full marks for that as they play a selection of instruments and don a dress here, a wig or wispy beard there to present eight of the best known novels. True some, like
Bleak House and Great Expectations, are dispensed with in a minute or two, but others, especially David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol (which includes a surprising moment as Tiny Tim reveals his crutch to be a glittering electric guitar) get a good showing, interspersed with scenes from the great man’s own hectic life story. His love of theatre is introduced in a running gag about Dickens exhausting himself by performing the death of Nancy in Oliver - a joke itself bludgeoned to death. It is all played out on Lez Brotherston’s murky, gothic set, edged with candles and hung with parcels and other objects like sinister stalactites.
On the face of it, the show seems to be sending up the work of a canonical author rather in the manner of university students poking knowing fun at a shared course. And yet it can only work commercially if the stories have already entered popular culture through film and television adaptations. If I found the overall effect over-emphatic and only intermittently funny, I have to report that others in the audience were beside themselves with mirth. It is difficult to be too tough on something so apparently good-natured, but my advice, if you want a more satisfying laugh - along with much else, of course - is to return to the originals. Charles Dickens unaided, plugged indeed, is hard to beat.
- Heather Neill
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