Note: This review dates from September 2000 and this production's West End run at first the Comedy and then Albery Theatres.
In 1845, Charles Dickens embarked upon a grand European tour. Unable to resist a challenge, the great English novelist, journalist and social critic climbed up Mount Vesuvius in the midst of an eruption. On the precipice, looking down on the molten darkness underneath, Dickens may well have felt he was on top of the world, while fiery depths raged below.
Such a vantage point, it seems to me, symbolises this show's portrait of Dickens, a man whose gigantic personality provides rich meat and drink to a calibre actor such as Simon Callow. Alone on a proscenium stage outlined by a large picture frame, with another frame within and yet another at an angle from stage right (design by Christopher Woods), Callow's storytelling abilities mould the production's heart.
Some elements in Dickens' life are familiar, such as his father's imprisonment in the Marshalsea gaol, the writer's pre-pubescent employment in a bottle-blacking factory, and the affair, or at least infatuation, with actress Ellen Ternan. More illuminating is the delineation of Dickens' work obsession, and his seemingly indefatigable compulsion to write about London – a metropolis possessing the extremes of its chief chronicler.
Written by Peter Ackroyd, and directed unobtrusively by Patrick Garland, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, despite its provocative title, does not fathom the essential enigma between this most public, and yet wilfully private, figure. What does becomes clear, however, is that many of Dickens' creations were forged out of the hot press of experience and observation. Skilfully interweaving scenes and characters throughout, Ackroyd elevates his chronological text with observations such as the description of the author's London as “the cold, stone-hearted stepmother of his suffering”.
Working from Ackroyd's judicious vignette selection, Callow's suppleness with accents, voices, and his disarming ease on stage, build an increasingly compelling evening. Most admirable is the instant intensity Callow projects, not least in a wonderful evocation of Pip's first encounter with Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. In these moments, great prose gives birth to powerful theatre. Ever the aspirant actor, one may surmise that this production, and Callow's performance, would have delighted Dickens.