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Bleak House

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (adapted by Nick Moseley), was directed by Kevin Smith and was performed at the Edward Alleyn Theatre in October 2012.

Review by Brian Green

The problem of coping with adapting any of Dickens’ novels for the stage is their length. Bleak House is no exception, as the programme notes acknowledge. Characters have to be left out, sub-plots ignored. Even with careful editing the audience is in for a long evening and Dulwich audiences are notorious for their expectation of brevity in lectures, concerts and drama.  What a dilemma then for director Kevin Smith. But what a triumph!

I could not at first understand the need for so many ASM’s. There was a virtually bare, but very adequate set, no props, so why were they needed?  Well yes, there was the copious use of stage fog but I suspect that backstage the ASM’s were in running shoes and chasing around getting the cast in on their different cues. And that is why Kevin’s play was such a triumph – it was a seamless production, fast, smooth and gripping; thanks in no small measure to faultlessly executed lighting and sound cues under the operation of Jessica Orr (lighting) and Sarah Wyatt (sound).   

There was a very good opening which set the play in its legal context of satirising the Court of Chancery. The crowd scene was very well handled and if there was one mistake in the production it came later in what was actually the rather clever device of dropping hundreds of sheets of legal papers on the hapless, expectant, but dying Richard Carstone,(well played by newcomer Michael Marsden) an heir to the Jarndyce estate about which the play is all about. The mistake of using this device was that half the audience thought that it signalled the end of the play and started to applaud, unaware that a further fifteen minutes remained. If this happened at the first performance then the device, however clever should have been cut.

The sub-plot, revolved around the legitimacy of Esther (another very good performance by a new member of the Players – Lizzie Regan) and the disgrace of her mother Lady Dedlock well played by the reliable Rebecca Dallaway.  If the audience could not understand the complexities of this sub-plot (why the marriage between Esther’s parents was not acknowledged by Lady D or why Lady D did not make absolutely sure Captain Hawdon was actually dead before she married Sir Leicester Dedlock it was the fault of Charles Dickens himself.

Dickens was often criticised of such errors in his books and Bleak House was held to mark, by some contemporaries, as the beginning of the author’s decline. Others, later readers, such as G.B Shaw and Chesterton claim, rather that it marked his last great phase.  

The joy of reading and watching Dickens is in observing his sharply drawn but exaggerated characters. And Bleak House is stuffed with them. All credit to Katie Lipsidge and Lydia Dickie for dragging out every morsel of humour in their roles of Mrs Smallweed and Krook, the awful lodging-house sisters-in-law.  Did they over-egg the parts? Of course! But that was typical Dickens! The same may also be said of Ian Jones’s triple part marathon (or should it be called triathlon?) – his best performance was undoubtedly that of the sponging Mr Skimpole. Ian’s flowery costume matched his flowery but very funny mannerisms (did Dickens really have poet Leigh Hunt in mind when he created this role?). A little less successful was his version of the pious humbug Chadband but he rose again with a fine performance as the slimy lawyer Vholes. In the wacky department, Tracy Brook is to be hugely congratulated on her role as the deranged spinster Miss Flite (another claimant on the Jarndyce case).

Another obnoxious character, the vile solicitor, Mr Tulkinhorn was safe in the hands of Bill Bailey and his exchange with Hortense, Lady D’s maid (a very good interpretation by Sheree Clapperton) who was prepared to expose her mistress was particularly well drawn. So too was the studied performance of street urchin Jo. Emily Dickie caught well the intended pathos in the play’s weepy role of the consumptive victim of Tulkinghorn deviousness. Steve Borrie was well cast as Mr Bucket, the detective in the pay of Tulkinghorn who brings about the death of poor Jo by exposing the lad to the noxious London fog but who develops for himself an overload of guilty conscience. Steve made also a very convincing bailiff’s man, who, one felt, would not want to find at one’s door.

One of the major and most difficult roles in the play is that of John Jarndyce the kindly guardian of the two wards of chancery and also of the homeless Esther. Although also an heir to the Jarndyce estate, he nevertheless does not allow it to destroy him and it was during his argument with his ward Richard that Stefan Nowak’s character really came alive. Mike Stirling cut an imposing figure but did not quite bring off the pomposity of Sir Leicester Dedlock. Newcomer, Philip Wolff, playing the beavering solicitors’ clerk Guppy showed great timing and expression in his performance and his nervous and unrequited wooing of Esther was particularly nicely done.

Minor roles were ably played by Anita Etheridge as the nagging wife of Snagsby, performed with a suitably hangdog expression by Kevin Edwards and Anita also doubled up as the ridiculous Mrs Jellyby who preferred Africa rather than the streets of London for her reforming zeal. Wendy Leech gave a nice little cameo role as Jenny, one of London’s poor while another welcome newcomer Lily Sida-Murray played the hapless ward Ada, another difficult role with very little for her to get her teeth into. Sue Grindlay comfortably doubled up as the Lord Chancellor and the sympathetic Mrs Rouncewel to complete this large, talented and hard-working cast and crew.