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Review Round-up: Critics Unplug Dickens Show?

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Reduced Shakespeare Company co-founder Adam Long’s new show, Dickens Unplugged, opened on Monday (9 June 2008, previews from 23 May) at the Comedy Theatre (See 1st Night Photos, 10 Jun 2008). Aiming to do for Charles Dickens what Long’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) did for the Bard, it takes its bow in the West End after premiering at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe.

According to promotional material, Dickens Unplugged presents the life and works of Charles Dickens as never seen before: fast, furious and in five-part harmony. Audiences are given a light-hearted insight into an incredible man: from his bleak childhood to his complicated marriage, numerous children and his final years.

Using a mix of musical styles and instruments, the cast give voice to a host of Dickens' most eccentric and loved characters. Oliver Twist, Tiny Tim, David Copperfield, Miss Havisham, Charles Darnay and many more appear in Long’s 20 original songs which include “Aint Goin Back to Blackin” and “Far Far Better Thing”. The cast are writer/director Adam Long, Joseph Attenborough, Matthew Hendrickson, Simon Jermond and Gabriel Vick. It's designed by Lez Brotherston, with lighting by Jon Clark.

After the success of The Complete Works, which ran for a most un-abridged nine years in the West End, the critical Midas touch seemed to evade this new redux show, despite a few favourable notices. Opinion ranged from contempt ("unmemorable", "dumbed-down") to quietly impressed ("works bizarrely well", "enthusiastic silliness"). And though some praised Long for his more "subtle" approach than previous shows, others felt that Dickens Unplugged marked "an abridgement too far".

  • Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “I’m not sure how Dickens was plugged before Long and Co came on the scene, but their term can’t possibly imply a withdrawal of energy. The five performers, including Long himself, get full marks for that as they play a selection of instruments and don a dress here, a wig or wispy beard there to present eight of the best-known novels. True some, like Bleak House and Great Expectations, are dispensed within a minute or two, but others, especially David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol … get a good showing, interspersed with scenes from the great man’s own hectic life story … If I found the overall effect over-emphatic and only intermittently funny, I have to report that others in the audience were beside themselves with mirth. It is difficult to be too tough on something so apparently good-natured, but my advice, if you want a more satisfying laugh - along with much else, of course - is to return to the originals. Charles Dickens unaided, plugged indeed, is hard to beat.”
    • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (one star) – “One of the tests of any stage adaptation is whether it sends you scuttling back to the original book. Adam Long's dumbed-down and dreary musical celebration of the works of Charles Dickens certainly had me scuttling back to my bookshelves, but only with the aim of burning the entire canon … Dickens Unplugged, performed by ‘the biggest Charles Dickens tribute band in Santa Cruz’, suggests that Complete Works was a happy accident, rather than intelligent design. More Dickens unhinged, it mixes a little biography … with send-ups of the novels and songs so unmemorable that you could play them all to me again and I would not recognise any of them … Like the plays in the Complete Works, some of the novels are done and dusted in a couple of minutes and some … drag on for so long that you probably could have read the entire book. The boundless, puppyish optimism of the performers is deeply depressing, given that such optimism is entirely groundless, as is the complete absence of wit or insight.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “It may not prove quite such a box-office smash as the earlier show, because Dickens isn't quite such a big global brand - the mere Caffè Nero to Shakespeare's ubiquitous Starbucks - but, once again, the show is a lot of fun and doesn't outstay its welcome … Working on his first musical-theatre piece, Long has come up with a winning selection of songs. As befits a former hippie from California, they have a gentle West Coast vibe about them, reminiscent of the Lovin' Spoonful and the Grateful Dead in acoustic mode, while the vocal harmonies put one in mind of Crosby, Stills and Nash … the performances - in a huge variety of roles from Matthew Hendrickson, Gabriel Vick (as Dickens), the delightfully geeky Joseph Attenborough, as well as Jermond and the versatile Long, who also directs - prove highly appealing.”
    • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail – “Having boiled down Shakespeare, Wagner and the history of America in the previous two decades, you might reasonably have expected Adam Long to be scraping the barrel with his comedy of reduction. But no. Despite running nine straight years in the West End with the spoof Complete Works of Shakespeare alone, Long is back with a new all-American crew that’s fresher and funnier than ever … It moves too thich and fast it’s impossible to apportion individual credit, but wisely they save the best till last … this a show which gets funnier as it goes along, climaxing in a gospel song ‘Lay Down Charles Dickens’. Silly? You bet your ass – which is why it’s worth the entrance fee for a Tiny Tim electric guitar solo alone.”
    • Sharon Lougher in Metro (three stars) – “It works bizarrely well, for the most part. Framing the action is the sweetly doofussy ‘biggest Chalres Dickens tribute band in Santa Cruz’ – a guitar-wielding, vocally strong five-pice who gamely thread country songs through a choice selection of Dickens’s work … Less successful are 30-second versions of Bleak House and Great Expectations - nice try but the lyrics are hard to discern – while ‘biographical’ skits about the great man himself tend to run out of steam. Nonetheless, it still amounts to something less slaptick and more subtle than previous London and Reduced Shakespeare shows – and as such, you’ll need a bit more prior knowledge of the subject matter. The affection for the source material remains, though, and if it makes you return to Dickens’s ‘canon of genius’ … then that’s no bad thing.”
    • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Purists may have scoffed at Shakespeare (abridged), but it was hard to deny its high-energy American-accented invention … and even higher laughs-per-minute count. In contrast, the similarly transatlantic-sounding Dickens feels unnecessarily effortful … The USP is the music, with songs in a variety of styles. They are pleasant enough but utterly forgettable the second they finish, for all the hard-working cast of five’s strumming and tooting. A Tale of Two Cities — first line ‘Gosh it sucks being French and poor’ — ends in a soft-rock duet, whereas Nicholas Nickleby comes over all Country and Western. As the actors are male, there are false boobs and dodgy wigs, but these fail to raise the expected laughs. Nonetheless, I confidently predict that the RSC idea will return. The Brontës Unbound, maybe?”
    • Jeremy Kingston in The Times (one star) – “Adam Long, the writer and director of this dreadful dog’s breakfast of a show, claims to be a ‘complete devotee’ of the Dickens novels, but as the old Spike Jones song once told us, with appropriate sound effects, ‘You always hurt the one you love (ouch!!)’. My response to what Long and his little team of pain-makers have perpetrated here is not even an ouch but a glum recognition of the depths to which comedy can sink … The remorseless emphasis on devising shock tactics to generate giggles is like having Mickey Mouse in Guernica. When Joseph Attenborough’s Copperfield tells the devoted Agnes that he loves another, Simon Jermond’s response shows the turmoil of dismay conflicting with courtesy in a manner both convincing and comic. This is subtle acting in a show where subtlety is elsewhere kept very low on the menu.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (two stars) – “The tone is established in the opening routine where the cast launch into chirpy Oliver!-type jollities. Nancy warbles ‘As long as he beats me’ and the Artful Dodger invites Oliver home to meet a Jew ‘who's got a thing about little boys’. An outraged Dickens thunders on. Oliver Twist, he berates them, is ‘bleakly realistic’. ‘That's way different from the movie,’ is their incredulous response … The trouble is that the material is thin and repetitive, a fact that the winning, spirited performances can't disguise. Making no bid for against-the-clock completeness, it rarely rises to the inspired silliness whereby the Shakespeare show managed to cram all 16 comedies and romances into one blissful sketch, ‘Four Weddings and a Transvestite’. The form seems to have run out of puff. Indeed, a suitable subtitle for this latest piece might be ‘An Abridgement Too Far’.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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