An Audience With Charles Dickens, at Arlington Arts Centre, Snelsmore, on Friday, January 21
THE actor great great grandson of one of Britain’s most celebrated authors, Gerald Dickens was surely destined in some way to bring his ancestor’s work to the stage. As it happens, although his books are now well known through their many transitions to stage and screen, as well as enduring in print, Dickens himself became famed for public readings from his pages, and so recreating such performances has become Gerald Dickens’ calling.
Dickens Junior explained how his great great grandfather’s love of the theatre helped bring his characters to life, not just in the readings he performed towards the end of his life, but also in their creation, as he was observed by his daughter pulling faces and trying out voices in the mirror during his writing process.
After a dabble in amateur theatricals that brought him to the attention of Queen Victoria, Dickens fulfilled his longing to tread the boards for the last two decades of his life through the public readings of his work that were to bring him even more fame, a goodly fortune and, some consider, to an early grave.
It is possible that Dickens’ health was hit hard, not only by the trials of touring both Britain and the USA, but also by the intensity of these live performances. Far from staid readings, Dickens threw his all into every performance, in particular a specially-written three-act reading of the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist - judged for its success each night by how many ladies in the audience fainted.
And so Gerald Dickens now brings to life some of the colourful characters of Dickens’ work, from a Gollum-like Uriah Heap to the schadenfreude of Mr and Mrs Micawber, on a stage laid out how Dickens himself would have had it on his tours, draped in red velvet and with a raised block on which to rest his arm as he read.
The second part of the evening was a one man performance of Nicholas Nickleby, with Dickens demonstrating his talent and passion for his ancestors characters as he took on such roles as the deeply unpleasant schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, ailing pupil Smike, and the demure Fanny Nickleby and her various unwanted suitors.
After such an enlightening and enjoyable first half, which would have stood alone in its own right as a perfectly acceptable evening’s entertainment the idea of an hour-long performance seemed something of an obligation come the interval, and others in the audience may have felt this quite strongly as there were a few empty seats on returning to the auditorium.
However, Gerald Dickens held the attention well as he presented his abridged version of the story, which first inspired his intense interest in his ancestor’s life and works when he saw it performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. That production was eight hours’ long, which was probably harder going than Dickens’ lively and energetic 60-minute dash. It may have made the evening slightly longer than required for an amusing Friday night’s entertainment, but Dickens’ fascinating performance certainly lived up to any great expectations.
- First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, January 27, 2011