Dickens Abridged – Arts Theatre

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A scene from Dickens Abridged at the Arts Theatre, London. Picture: Roy Tan

Dickens Abridged continues at the Arts Theatre, London until 5 January 2014.

You might think that the loose baggy monster novels of Charles Dickens could never by abbreviated in any form. Anybody having gone through an A Level or English degree who only had study notes to refer to will be forgiven for wondering where this show was all their lives. Dickens Abridged is a glorious, funny, rollicking musical run-through of the work of Charles Dickens involving scenes from his life and major pieces of writing.

First off, there is no getting away from America in this production. The actors are – as far as I can tell – UK and Australian, but the conceit is that they are a touring Dickens tribute band from Santa Cruz. Writer and director Adam Long (co-founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company) is probably projecting his own northern Californian roots here, but the conceit is a good one because it allows the dynamism of popular American culture and music to enliven those massive tomes.

To pull off this off you need an uber cast and the five guys – Gerard Carey, Matthew Hendrickson, Damian Humbley, Kit Orton and Jon Robyns – are faultless in accent and acting. They have to adapt to at least ten different roles each in a lightening tempo of song, dance and wit which is reminiscent of a cross between Morecambe and Wise and panto. Dickens was never very good with drawing female characters and the copious cross-dressing done by these gentlemen probably makes them more sympathetic than they ever were in the novels. Carey bouncing about as the future Mrs Dickens will long live in comic memory. They all act with such gusto and verve, you could plug them in to the National Grid to solve the energy crisis.

Slow ballads add a poignancy to give a welcome foil to the quick-fire Marx Brothers routines and this is most true in those sections about the author himself. Dickens is a complex man – wounded by his youthful suffering, he evokes pity, but his betrayal and poor behaviour to his wife and children ensure he’s treated with contempt too – the social campaigner with the dirty doorstep. They bring out both sides, judge the man but love the works.

One favourite section is A Tale of Two Cities which sees a couple of Bill and Ted dudes finally do a far, far better thing, which is most excellent. The ‘Dr Manette’ song manages to be both potently funny and tragic.

A Christmas Carol naturally ends Act II – the seasonal affective disorder of theatre. This scene is given an equal brio by the cast who despite (because?) of a technical difficulty bravely borne by Carey as Tiny Tim who is to play electric guitar but ends up playing air guitar when a connection breaks, brings the house down. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Hendrickson) on a skateboard is hilarious but maybe a drone next time?

The only stumble in the entire show is the beginning of the Christmas Carol section which seems to enter into bald exposition and throws a spanner in the tempo. But that is small potatoes considering the range of references and the speed with which they are delivered.

The musical styles are eclectic, there is a predominance of Bluegrass but there are touches of early rock‘n’roll, Hairspray and the Oliver Twist section shows more than a passing homage to Lionel Bart. There is Mary Poppins–style chimney sweep dancing to boot. Basically, it has loaned, borrowed, stolen and smuggled every conceivable musical form to achieve its end of being the funniest West End musical for some time. God bless us everyone!

NB. It’s always good to see a programme name-check front of house and bar staff. Theatre would be impossible without them.

Kieran Falconer 

www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk

Readers may also be interested in:

Scrooge the Musical – Southampton and Touring

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