Nicholas Nickleby part 1 – September 2007


By: Charles Dickens, adapted by David Edgar

Directed by: Jonathan Church and Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 18th September 2007

This was a completely different experience to last year’s performance. I suspect three factors were involved. One was that I had the headset, so could hear everything clearly, and in a play that uses words so well, that makes a big difference. Secondly, there were relatively few performances last year – only twenty of each, according to the post-show info – so the cast might not have got into full swing by the time we saw it. And thirdly, I was more familiar with the story, and could anticipate some things this time. For example, Smike’s line about following Nicholas to a “churchyard grave” got me sniffling straightaway tonight.

There was too much going on for me to note it all down, so I’ll have to keep the descriptions fairly general. The set was much the same as last year, though I gather there were changes, such as the spiral staircase that caused so many problems during the final scene of Romeo and Juliet (it had a tendency to hang on to swords, spades, etc.). There was an upper walkway with doors off, the staircase, a general space in the middle, a step up from the surrounding stage level, and various doors including the wide sliding doors at the back that the schoolboys come through at Dotheboys Hall. There was a general air of shabbiness, but that soon changed when the swells were on stage; both costume and lighting gave the stage a completely different feel. The costume changes must have been frantic, as even with four extra actors (post-show again), the number of characters was mind-boggling.

I was much more involved with the story from the start, and I enjoyed the energy of the chorus effect. In fact, I felt I could have done with even more of that at times, as the energy tended to drop a little when there were more straight scenes. I didn’t notice the recasting that much, as they all seemed to be working well together, and the story came across very much more clearly. I found the Dotheboys section almost too tough for me this time round. Even though the details weren’t particularly graphic, my emotional connection with it made me feel the depth of suffering so much more, and I had a few sniffles. In fact, I had a certain moistness of the eyes at various times through the performance, mostly caused by Smike, it must be said.

Of course, the sad parts made an excellent contrast with the funny bits, and I enjoyed these a lot more second time around. Bob Barrett was one actor I remembered well from last year, and I felt his Browdie, the bluff Yorkshireman, was even better this time. I loved the humour of the misunderstanding between Nicholas and Fanny, and Nicholas’s completely inept handling of the situation. I also enjoyed the initial scene between the Nicklebys, just up from the country, and Uncle Ralph, played this time by David Yelland, who got across his character’s complete distaste for any sort of personal relationship, especially with his family, and his total devotion to acquiring money.  There was a lot of humour in this, and I do hope the audience does some booing over the Christmas run in London.

But the best bit of a very good performance was the final scene, showing us the effect the Victorian sensibilities had on the plays of Shakespeare. The advantage of the extra actors was that the Chichester stage, so often a vast wilderness which the cast prowl around trying to fill, was increasingly crowded with every character from the play, including the hapless apothecary, as the dead came back to life and all was bliss and rapture. I must admit to thinking, for one tenuous moment, that the Victorians had a point. After all, Juliet’s potion wasn’t deadly, so why shouldn’t Romeo’s be a placebo? But the thought didn’t last for long, as all the corpses from the freshly skewered to the three days rotting, jumped up to join in the curtain calls. There had already been a number of mishaps – bottle in the wrong hand, no dagger for Juliet so she had to grab a pickaxe – so the final resurrections just fitted right in. It was also lovely to have the whole cast finish the evening with a rousing song, as the music had been so good throughout I’d actually wanted a bit more singing.

The post show nearly had more people on the stage than in the auditorium. I was even more impressed when Philip Franks told us they were busy working out how to adapt the production for a proscenium arch, so they obviously don’t have a lot of time to spare. The overall impression was of a company that’s working really well together, and nearly everyone contributed an answer to the questions. Philip and Jonathan worked really well together as co-directors, Philip in particular was singled out for major praise for his contribution in creating such a good team spirit (a willingness to walk over hot coals was mentioned). Details of the adaptation and the process of getting support for the tour etc. were covered, there was a feeling from last year that they hadn’t fully explored the production, and everyone was going on the tour plus London stint and trip to Canada (no glum faces that I could see). About half of the cast were new this year, and that had helped to bring extra energy into the mix.

The audience were very appreciative, and I got the impression that a number of people had found this year’s offering even better than last year. I have to agree, and now I’m seriously (if that’s the right word) looking forward to Part 2. Tissues at the ready!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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