Sebastian Barry’s new play Andersen’s English is a peculiar hybrid of a production by Max Stafford-Clark for Hampstead and Out of Joint: a social comedy involving Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen ends up as a feminist fiction about Dickens behaving badly.
The genesis of the project was a Broadway musical about the Danish writer for which Barry was hired to write a libretto. It never happened.
Nor does the play, really. Danny Sapani plays a lisping Hans Christian with an unhappy knack of outstaying his welcome when Dickens – played with ramrod rigour and a badly behaved bushy wig by David Rintoul – and his family open the door to him at Gad’s Hill in 1857.
But apart from the writers’ mutual admiration, there is no integration of characters or ideas. You sense another play entirely trying to get out: Dickens falling for Ellen Ternan as he arranges a charity performance in memory of his old friend Douglas Jerrold, whom we never meet but would like to.
The play also name-checks the Collins brothers – novelist Wilkie and painter Charles, who married Dickens’ daughter Kate – while Dickens replaces Kate in his affections with Ellen, both roles played with eager brightness by Lorna Stuart in two more wigs even nastier than her father’s.
The still centre of the domestic turmoil is occupied by Niam Cusack’s luminous Catherine, distraught that Dickens insists on sending their son Walter (Alastair Mavor) to the battle front in India; and another hare is let loose when Catherine’s sister Georgie (Kathryn O’Reilly) is fingered as a rival object of the old rogue’s affections, though she died a virgin.
A bubbly Irish maid Aggie (Lisa Kerr) is treated brusquely by Dickens, anxious to farm her out to a home for fallen women after she’s been made pregnant by his own son; who, silly boy, has fallen in love with her. Now I felt as if I was reading Mills and Boon.
Stafford-Clark creates some wonderfully fluent stage pictures on Lucy Osborne’s design as the company traipse over the furniture on a picnic outing or break into close-harmony parlour songs, or even play a little expert cricket and shuttlecock on the forestage. But I’m afraid I had to suppress little squeaks of “no ball” and “out” as they did so.