It was a bold move of the Chichester Festival Theatre to revive David Edgar’s famous two-part adaptation of Charles Dickens’ early novel in September 2006, and that production by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, recently on tour, has now arrived on Shaftesbury Avenue for a season playing through to the end of January.

Is it as good as it was in 1980, when Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company defined an era and stormed to triumph on both sides of the Atlantic (after, it must be remembered, an initial lukewarm critical reaction and public indifference, a situation completely transformed by the powerful advocacy of Bernard Levin in The Times)?

Yes and no. As with the subsequent, resultant RSC 1985 blockbuster Les Miserables (coincidentally playing next door to Nickleby now at the Queen’s), very little seems left out of the sprawling novel. The story rattles along, scenes splintered among the actors in third-person narrative, then melded together in the organic set-pieces of a coach ride to Portsmouth, the hilarious “happy ending” Romeo and Juliet with the Vincent Crummles company, the rising of London itself against wicked Ralph Nickleby.

Some scenes are bathed in golden light as before and the set by Simon Higlett – scaffolding, pulleys, a spiral staircase and an upper level – is an echo of John Napier’s and Dermot Hayes’ original. The late Stephen Oliver’s wonderful score of anthems, chorales, linking soundtrack and the glorious finale arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is lovingly recreated. And Edgar has trimmed the script to make a total six-and-a-half hour playing time instead of the original eight hour-plus.

But the show doesn’t quite land the knockout punch of a true company-based enterprise; the methodology looks a bit dated. Edgar’s script brilliantly elaborates on the novel’s theatricality as well as interweaving the plot strands in the denser second half, but the performance sags under the weight of too much detail and coincidence; more snap and brio, please.

As at Chichester, Daniel Weyman and David Dawson are Nicholas and Smike, and they are outstanding, the one tall, confident and given to moral speechifying, the other bent and withered like a broken paperclip. Father and daughter play uncle and niece: David Yelland is superbly nasty as Ralph Nickleby, Hannah Yelland a charmingly priggish Kate. Abigail McKern is a rosy-cheeked, chattering Mrs Nickleby, Alison Fiske delightful as Mrs McCreevy and a velvety-voiced Zoe Waites makes a wonderful journey through Fanny Squeers, Miss Snevellicci and the demurely wronged Madeline Bray.

The hard working troupe – there are 23 actors instead of the RSC’s 40 – also includes Richard Bremmer as an elongated, knuckle-cracking Newman Noggs, Jonathan Coy as a grandiloquent Crummles, Pip Donaghy doubling as a frothing, one-eyed Squeers and the sinister debaucher Sir Mulberry Hawk, and lovely contributions from Bob Barrett, Tricia Kelly and Jane Bertish (whose sister Suzanne was in the original!).

I had a very good time. But I wasn’t ecstatically transported except when Oliver’s music nudged me along the way. As Church and Franks so assiduously evoke the RSC original, they can hardly complain if the great crackling fire of long ago feels a little banked down in the embers of history.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2006 and this production's original run at Chichester Festival Theatre.

David Edgar’s adaptation for the RSC of one of Dickens’ earliest novel was a landmark theatrical event of the 1980s. It made stars out of Roger Rees and David Threlfall and transformed the way we thought of Dickens.

Edgar’s vision of the novel was a world away from the BBC’s Sunday afternoon adaptations and moved to a bleaker vision of London. That was a vast work, involving more than 30 members of cast playing more than 100 characters in nearly eight hours.

So it’s to Chichester’s credit that it undertakes such a vast enterprise, albeit in a scaled-down version. Edgar has edited the work to clip the running time by an hour, and this time, just 23 actors play all the parts – only two actors play a single role. It’s an ambitious project but the direction team of Jonathan Church and Philip Franks bring it off superbly.

Daniel Weyman has moved Nicholas even further away from the bland hero that he is all-too often purported to be. As one of the characters says, he’s a violent man, and Weyman looks like someone always ready to move in with his fists.

The other actor who plays a single role is Leigh Lawson as the villainous uncle, Ralph. It’s easy to play him as a pantomime villain but he invests the character with a good deal of sardonic humour. Full marks too to Susan Jameson too for her garrulous Mrs Nickleby. Again, it’s too easy to play this for laughs but she brings out some of the latent nastiness too.

David Dawson as Smike, has the unenviable task of following in Threlfall’s footsteps. It seems a strange thing to say about an actor who played the part 25 years ago, but then, that was such a compelling performance. Dawson is certainly not intimidated by the challenge and maintains the pathos (although he does speak in a strange Spanish-like accent).

The real stars though are the supporting cast, many of whom play five or six roles, and who are magnificent throughout. Of course, some of the roles are plums for actors: the villainous Squeers and the barnstorming thespian Vincent Crummles to name just two, but Pip Donaghy and Bernard Lloyd do full justice to these parts, as does Zoe Waites, playing the three women (Fanny, Miss Snevellicci and Madeline) who fall in love with Nicholas. But these actors bring something to even the smallest parts: Christopher Logan has just four lines as a stroppy footman and manages to elicit four loud laughs.

Someone from the Crummles company describes a play as “very long, with a great many parts” – almost a summary of Nicholas Nickleby itself. But I doubt whether Crummles’ company (excellent as it no doubt was) would have kept an audience spellbound for so long. It’s not as good as the RSC production (what could be?) but it’s a superb effort and worth the trip to Chichester.

- Maxwell Cooter