Dickens’ bicentenary this year has brought a number of adaptions to the stage all over London, including Space Production’s revised version of David Edgar’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, but this is not a Dickens I can honestly recommend: it is far too ambitious and suffers hugely from it. At the Space.
Charles Dickens’ novel, first published as a serial through 1838-39, is a behemoth of a story – the trials of a young man, ostracized by his uncle Ralph, trying to make his way in the world, while his sister Kate looks after their mother and tries to earn her way in London. As in much of Dickens’ work, Nicholas Nickleby is notable for its social satire, heaping layers of irony, wit and Dickens’ trademark quirky names onto a huge variety of themes – mostly the corrupting influence of money, but both Nicholas’ and Kate’s journeys take them through many societal echelons and situations; as stated above, it’s a bit of a monster. In David Edgar’s hugely successful adaptation, which the RSC took all over the world, nothing was cut – it ran at eight and a half hours.
And this is the version that Space Productions have attempted to adapt – although the result is far from good. Cutting an eight and a half hour production down to four and half hours just doesn’t work: there’s no way the result will be anything more than a collection of highlights, skipping through the story and glossing over any scene of interest. It’s certainly not fun to watch – an ever-spiraling number of characters roll on and off stage, have one or two lines, and are then consigned to the ether, and much of the script is now exposition and narration. It’s bewildering and uninteresting.
To work, this would have needed a cast of performers with the ability to leap in and out of character quickly, as well as a director who had a handle on the ridiculous characters Dickens writes so very well – unfortunately, neither is the case here. The leads, Kiel O’Shea and Tabitha Becker-Kahn, gamely struggle through as Nicholas and Kate, but the support they receive means that their characters have no subtlety at all. Tim Blackwell’s Ralph is an excellent example of this: instead of finding an ironic exaggeration to the villain (think of Oliver Reed’s Bill Sykes), this is more pantomime than anything else, with Blackwell’s frozen expressions and hissing sibilance reminding me of Lord Voldemort.
The staging is also bizarre – doing the entire piece in the round, without props or set, is a classic Fringe fall-back, but what works for one-hour-shows which don’t rely on their setting doesn’t for a Victorian high drama. Everything seems to happen in the middle of nowhere, and odd physical moves will never exactly replace a card game or a child being whipped – it just has no impact. There might have been a smidgeon of hope with some inventive sound effect or lighting use, but there didn’t seem to be any sound at all, and the lighting was always a touch late, switching on as a character started speaking.
If that all sounds a little harsh – it is. This is a poor production, although the fault here falls squarely at director Adam Hemming’s feet: his director’s notes apologise for the cutting down of the script, the fact that actors have had to be replaced due to paid commitments, and that it was too expensive to do the show with full props and set – but if that’s all the case, was it worth staging the show at all? London Fringe venues thrive on their community spirit and their boldness, but within reason – this is far, far too ambitious for the Space, and it shows.
I will freely admit that I didn’t stay for Part II – I was so disappointed by Part I and aggravated with the director’s poor decisions that I didn’t feel I could stay for any more. I’m a fan of the Space and wish them all success, but this is a bridge too far.