THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY by Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar, directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks (Mirvish/Chichester). At Princess of Wales (300 King West). To April 20. $45-$170. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNN
Charles Dickens may have his faults as a writer, but he’s a wonderful storyteller. And so, thankfully, is David Edgar, who in 1980 adapted Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Chichester Festival’s shortened version (six and a half hours, originally two hours longer) has moved into the Princess of Wales, and if you love theatre, don’t miss this two-part show, a superb blend of choral narration, story theatre and moving dramatic confrontations.
It follows the fortunes of the title character as he tries to care for his mother and sister Kate, fending off evil Uncle Ralph, befriending the hapless, beaten Smike in the horrific country school in which Nicholas teaches and becoming an actor with a melodramatic theatrical troupe. And those are only some of the interrelated narratives lines.
The joy of watching this large British company, directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, comes from the sheer exuberance of their performances; both parts begin with the excitement of a three-ring circus. You’ll also never find a funnier Shakespeare takeoff than the first half’s ending, a Romeo And Juliet finale where all’s well that ends well.
There are few wrong notes in the ensemble cast, but, while it’s hard to cite favourites, there’s fine work by David Yelland as the ironic, gruff Ralph, Alison Fiske as the Nicklebys’ friend and later a deaf housekeeper, and David Dawson as the heartbreaking Smike. Hannah Yelland makes Kate passionately, believably virtuous, while Richard Bremmer as the scarecrow-like Newman Noggs, Ralph’s honest clerk, is all elbows and knees.
The multiple casting makes its own dramatic point: Pip Donaghy plays Squeers, the horrible schoolmaster who mistreats Nicholas, and also the rakish Sir Mulberry Hawk, who relentlessly pursues the pure Kate. Zoë Waites is another standout as Fanny Squeers, Miss Snevellicci and Madeline Bray, all of whom have an amorous interest in Nicholas.
The production’s weak point, unfortunately, is the Nicholas of Daniel Weyman; he acts the part without seeming emotionally involved in it. The role is a rich one, and I wish Weyman had mined it more deeply.