By Daniel Jamieson (after Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop)
28th March 2013
My curiosity was aroused when I read that this modernized version of The Old Curiosity Shop started in a secondhand vinyl shop in London. As I spend so much of my time in secondhand vinyl shops, I was intrigued by the idea of bringing the story up to date with this setting. Grandad becomes an old hippie running the shop who was at festivals in 1969 … this starts to get worrying!
Grandpa (Christian Flint) runs a secondhand vinyl shop
The programme is done square like a 10” LP with a tracklist for Side 1 and Side 2 on the back. It even has a sticker, as secondhand shops do, with £2.50 on the front for the price. Annoyingly, the Side 1 and Side 2 don’t match the Act divisions, though all the “running times” of the tracks are listed with a little joke of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor at 64 minutes 31 seconds. It’s also advert free, has good essays, and is a fair price. Best programme of the year so far. Incidentally, the David Bowie LP they’re chucking around and ‘playing’ lists at £500 for a mint copy. And yes, I knew that immediately I saw it.
The play uses a European narrative style. Characters stay on, but fall out of character (dropping accents) and link the vast number of short scenes with narrative. The full array of theatrical devices is on display: back projection of stills and movies, characters freezing as statues, very rapid changes into minor characters, using a live mic with an actor for sound effects, a rap song (very well done too), changing direction to indicate a change of location, walking out of a room, turning and walking in to a different space, mimed props sometimes, real props other. Lots of very short pieces of real music and songs and composers are credited on the rear of the programme in those track lists, for a welcome change. However after all the talk about the music, I thought it underused.
The Old Curiosity Shop would make a long TV series. They’re condensing it into two hours (according to the programme, but two and a quarter actually) with the narrative links and tiny scenes. OK, it’s a particular style, which I don’t particularly like. The cleverness and interest is how they modernize the story and bring it into now. But that’s also a problem. The Dickens is melodrama. It was melodramatic even by 19th century standards, and the death of Little Nell became a favourite subject for artists.
The original illustration and text:
She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who has lived and suffered death … Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead.
The original Dickens was published as a long-runing serial, and the public anticipation for the last episode has been compared to the fuss about a forthcoming Harry Potter book this last decade. The public wail of horror and open weeping at Nell’s death is echoed by the demise of Bobby Ewing in Dallas or Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey. So you’re updating a melodrama, but you have the same larger-than-life caricatures to deal with. And these caricatures work better at the remove of the 19th century.
Quilp (Derek Frood) watches Mrs Quilp with odourless cigar
Quilp, the wicked landlord, would naturally have a top hat, frock coat and cane topped off with a twirly moustache (or in the non-PC original book, be a snarling hunchbacked dwarf). Derek Frood does a great job of transforming him into a camel-coated, brylcreemed East End villain, but it’s still a caricature. Grandad is an almost impossible figure of relentlessly woeful tragedy, here addicted to gambling as in 1841, though given his old hippie status, maybe drugs would have been a better way of spending money and falling into debt. Again, Christian Flint does it with gusto, and all the cast are good … but it’s a part many actors would hate to play in that it has the depth of a pantomime figure, but you have to play it for real.
The best moments are comedy, and they extract a lot of humour from the story, but they then have to get sudden violence (Sally Brass smacking The Marchioness, her daughter around, the sudden fits of fury from Quilp), and they have to get deep tragedy. Oscar Wilde said:
One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.
That is still the issue. Given the overblown melodrama I would have been inclined to go flat out and ‘take the piss’ out of the storyline. They don’t but inevitably the comedy bits work better than the tragic ones.
Sarah Kameela Impey as Nell. We know what’s going to happen to her …
There’s some excellent doubling (and trebling and more). Sarah Kameela Impey is both Nell, and Sally Brass’s daughter. Grandpa doubles as Mr Exe (Nell’s dad), Malcolm Hamilton does Dick E. Swiveller, the white rapper,and the Russian fast food restaurant manager. And they all do policemen, and statues, and archaeologists, and festival goers. I enjoyed Derek Frood’s other role as Short, here a one-man Kiss Tribute Band with a decent West Country accent rather than Mummerset, as well as his cameo as a judge and a statue on one leg.
Dick E. Swiveller (Malcolm Hamilton) and Sarah Kameela Impey as The Marchioness, Sally Brass’s daughter
In the end, it felt very long, and that’s not the sign of a play that’s working totally. It’s a bold effort, but there’s more plot than can comfortably be shoehorned into the time, and the resultant style means the very short scenes accentuate the caricature nature of the Dickensian roles. The rapid character changes means accents get overused, and I don’t know the word for Actors Estuary but I’ll call it Thespuary. There’s also Mockney and Mummerset, both of which are used as well as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G influenced white rapper for Dick E. Swiveller, now a DJ.
THE NUFFIELD THEATRE
Perhaps it wasn’t helped by The Nuffield. For some reason, Bath, Salisbury and Poole, all far smaller towns, can fill theatres which are larger, but if you get 30% in Southampton you’re doing well (this was probably less than that) and that’s in a theatre set in a large university, something both Poole and Salisbury lack. It badly affects atmosphere. The last four theatre performances have been much too hot in the unseasonably cold March weather. In contrast, the Nuffield was extremely cold, and that doesn’t relax you. We’ve seen superb productions at the Nuffield over many years, since Grandpa in this play was attending festivals in fact. I remember when every seat used to be taken, including the ones upstairs at the far sides. Quality has never been the theatre’s problem, even if the far too low, too soft seats have been a problem since they updated them some years back. They’ve at last told theatre patrons that they can ignore the draconian parking warnings in the campus car parks after 5 pm, though you still can’t park for midweek matinees, which is why we avoid them. Its far out-of-centre location means the only places to eat are the theatre bar or the takeaways on Burgess Road, which is off-putting for travelling patrons.
But I think the city of Southampton might be the main problem.
Full marks for Quilp’s cigars, which we could see smoking away, but which were odourless. Last week real cigar smoke filled the theatre.