DICKENS’ WOMEN devised and written by Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser, directed by Fraser, with Margolyes (Richard Jordan/Young Centre, 50 Tank House Lane). Through Saturday (December 15) 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $30-$40, stu $20. 416-866-8666. See lisintg. Rating: NNNN
What do you get when you combine a masterful writer and a first-class storyteller? Theatrical gold.
Dickens' Women, created by actor Miriam Margolyes and director Sonia Fraser, has been performed around the world. For the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, they're touring it again, and the Young Centre's wisely grabbed it as part of this year's Word Festival, devoted to the celebrated 19th-century English novelist.
Margolyes, well known from her film and TV work, packs two hours with Dickens' characters, mostly female. Just as importantly, she traces the writer's background and impresses on us how, with occasional musical help by pianist Peter Tiefenbach, the women in his life helped shape his fictional creations.
With a rubbery face, an ability to suggest physical transformations with a gesture or a stance and an extraordinary range of voices, Margolyes brings dozens of characters to life, from the eccentric and grotesque to the serious and touching. These include figures from the classic novels as well from as some occasional writing.
And don't worry if you don't know the novels; Margolyes is so vivid in her characterizations that you're immediately drawn in. Her sense of humanity comes through strongly, too, in the people we meet; no matter how unusual they are, she almost always finds a note of compassion for them.
Not every character is equally sharp, a function of the text Margolyes has to work with. Some of Dickens' creations are conventionally drawn, though the actor puts a lot of care into their presentation.
But that's a minor cavil. From the moment she steps onstage as the liquorish Mrs. Gamp (from Martin Chuzzlewit), a conniving woman who lays out the dead, Margolyes is riveting as Little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop), Dora Spenlow (David Copperfield) and Flora Finching (Little Dorrit). And that's only part of the first act.
The second is darker in tone, after a hilarious scene in which she shifts with ease between Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Corney (Oliver Twist), the former swaggering and insinuating, the latter diffident but suggestively welcoming Bumble's advances. Later in the act we also meet the lesbian Miss Wade (Little Dorrit) and the jilted Miss Havisham (Great Expectations).
The Great Expectations scene is one of the show's most remarkable, as Margolyes brings to life the young Pip, the trained heartbreaker Estella, the vengeful Miss Havisham and the older Pip, narrator of the action.
Throughout the piece, the actor weaves details of Dickens' life into the fiction, demonstrating his idealized fascination with 17-year-old women, his mockery of those who give themselves airs and, at times, his male chauvinism. By her own admission, Margolyes both likes and hates Dickens the man, no matter how highly she holds his work.
You won't find a more transcendent moment of drama than the monologue of Miss Flite (Bleak House) at the end of the show. Waiting judgment on an inheritance to be decided by the court of chancery - her ancestors cooled their heels, too - she finds pleasure in her cages birds, planning to release them when the case is settled. Just wait for her litany of their names; it's equally uplifting and heartbreaking.
Don't miss Dickens' Women.