It’s five years now since Peter Hall inaugurated his summer seasons at Bath’s beautiful Georgian theatre. This year’s festival includes two stage premieres: a new South African play by Athol Fugard and this shortish (90 minutes) but sweet bio-drama by Simon Gray of Charles Dickens’ secret other life with the young actress Ellen Ternan.
In a season which will also offers Shaw’s Pygmalion – the rather pert young flower girl who turns Professor Higgins’ head (at least in the film; Hall’s revival augmented by extra scenes Shaw wrote for the 1938 film, reverts to Shaw’s instructions and give them no such romantic outcome) – Gray’s companion head turner, Ellen Ternan emerges as just as much a victim of an older man’s fancy if collusive with it.
‘Nell’, or Little Mouse as he affectionately called her proved to be a redoubtable muse for Dickens – a Little Nell, killed off in The Old Curiosity Shop, resurrected. That she was also the love of his life, who remained by his side for 13 years, did not stop him from keeping her hidden, in darkest Slough and Peckham. In Gray’s play, there’s a piercing scene where Nell confronts Dickens with her invisible status. “How do you refer to me in public?” she demands. “It depends on who I am talking to,” comes the pragmatic reply from the famous author and married man who fathered ten children by his lawful wife.
There have been several stage attempts in recent years to investigate Dickens, the man behind the work. Miriam Margolyes brought a subtle feminist critique to her one-woman show celebrating Dickens’ women. Gray’s Little Nell - inspired by Claire Tomalin’s bestseller, The Invisible Woman - is a far more affectionate though not uncritical exploration.
Gray makes a fine job of gently revealing Dickens’ hypocrisies, strange idealisation complex and the destructive affects of adultery through the painful enquiries made by Tim Pigott-Smith’s halting, World War One scarred Geoffrey Robinson, Ellen’s son by her later marriage and his distantly related relative, Barry Stanton’s avuncular lawyer, Dicken’s natural son. In a cast that includes Tony Haygarth (as Ellen’s confidante, the Rev Benham) and Michael Pennington as a wonderfully bewhiskered and flamboyantly self-deceiving Charles Dickens, comparative newcomer Loo Brealey shines as the eponymous Nell, managing the remarkable feat of both looking an innocent 17 (when Dickens ‘seduced’ her) and a later, more agonised wife of the failed headmaster husband George Robinson, riddled by the guilt of concealment of her 13-year affair with the novelist.
Barely 90 minutes in length, Little Nell’s qualities are gentle but cumulative. Lighting designer Peter Mumford, designer Simon Higlett, who suggests park, Victorian living room and lawyer’s office all in one, and costume designer Christopher Woods wreathe the production in period glow while Hall directs with an elegiac touch. Gray, known in his youth for his bile, may have written more biting encounters. He’s seldom written one more simply affecting that still manages to contain the grit of truth.
- Carole Woddis