The Reduced Shakespeare Company's Dickens Abridged opened at the Arts Theatre last night (2 December 2013)
This cheery romp through Dickens' ‘greatest hits' by a cast of five actor-singers is highly accomplished and tailor-made for those who like madcap sketch-and-song revue shows.
Its writer/director, Adam Long, describes it as "a mash-up of California and Dickens – the Grateful Dead meets the Ghost of Christmas Past, with a touch of Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure".
From the opening moments when two guys with guitars sing of "Charlie Dickens walking the streets of London town" to the closing send-up of "A Christmas Carol" with Tiny Tim's crutch doubling as an electric guitar, and Tim himself attempting to join in with a dance routine on his knees, we get a lot of very amiable buffoonery but very little sense of Dickens.
When you condense the plot of hefty novels like Bleak House and Little Dorrit into 30-second songs it's quite funny the first time, less so the second, and there is, for this curmudgeonly viewer, a strong sense of the law of diminishing returns about this show.
There is no question that the all-male cast are uniformly talented, energetic and engaging, and they get a lot of mileage out of donning hairpieces and skirts to play assorted women to great comic effect, especially Gerard Carey as a winsome Agnes in David Copperfield and Jon Robyns as Dickens' much younger second wife, Ellen. They are less successful, though, when it comes to the villains like Fagin and Bill Sikes, who barely get a look-in.
The comedy is as broad as it comes, and one longs for a moment or two where there might just be a glimmer of something other than frantic silliness, however deftly executed and expertly timed. There is one such moment, but it seems strangely marooned in the surrounding sea of clowning.
At the Edinburgh Fringe, the show would be an absolute winner, and indeed was some six years ago, but now, in the West End, it has a dated feel. We've had nine years of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, of which Adam Long is a co-founder, and this is more of the same. Slick, funny, fast, but ultimately less than the sum of its many parts. It has a kind of easy heartlessness that begins to pall after an hour or so.
It has to be said, though, that the audience lapped it up and were clearly in the mood to join in the fun. Those whose idea of a Christmas treat does not involve traditional panto would do well to head to the Arts Theatre. But personally, by the time we got to A Christmas Carol I was rooting for Scrooge.