David Copperfield

David Copperfieldby Charles Dickens; adapted by Alastair Cording; dir Keith Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
19 – 26 October 2013
A Rare Gem

David Copperfield is a long, rambling novel by today’s standards; there is just too much to enact it all. Yet this production makes a worthy attempt at covering the main elements.

The lovely, multi-purpose set had a nautical theme, with sails, ropes, even a jetty, and enough bare, weathered wood to build the Peggottys’ boat-house. It included a wheeled apparatus that, through various attachments, served as a cart, beds, boat-house, prison, etc. Wheeled on and off by the cast, scene changes rarely disturbed the flow of action. At the back of the stage was a screen showing thematic stills and having the only real technical flaw; it seemed at times to be moving, causing the projected image to distractingly grow or shrink.

Dickens’ characters tread a fine line between caricature and realism and, for the most part, the representations here got that delicate balance correct – an exception being Edward Murdstone’s incredible eyebrows, prompting the need to suppress guffaws at first sight. As nothing else appeared to fall into the realms of the absurd, I’m surprised this wasn’t rectified. This is no reflection of the actual performance by Richard Copperwaite, who, despite being a little young, was suitably cold and menacing.

The whole cast performed admirably, from the headline roles to the schoolboys and bottle washers. Many also contended well with playing two parts, necessitating clear differentiation – and some very quick changes. Clear favourites among the audience were those who have to tread that fine line mentioned above most carefully: the Micawbers (Craig Shelton and Cathryn Bowler) and Uriah Heep (David Butler). Mr Micawber’s pompous and wordy affability and his sudden and dramatic descents into self-harming despair were marvellously captured in that theatrical style we imagine when reading the book. Mrs Micawber, comically tiny baby always at her breast and at every opportunity repeating her declaration to never desert her husband, was a perfect match for him, earnest and with an amusing lisp – perhaps a shade too much rouge (or ‘wouge’). Heep’s menacing, gangly form again ran just the right side of the border with pantomime (the desire to boo and hiss him was present, although not overpowering). His machinations and vindictiveness were barely covered by his obsequiousness, from his spider-like entrance, emerging from a box, to his defeat and expulsion in the same box.

David Coppefield himself was played by two actors: Nicol Cortese playing the younger with much energy, in bright-eyed awe among friends and cowed tearfulness among tormentors, and Pete Meredith playing the older confidently, from the marvellous storytelling in the younger David’s bedroom to the stumbling, awkward youth declaring his love. It would take too long to go through the delights of each character portrayal individually, but other favourites include Mr Dick and Mr Creakle (John Hathaway), Emily and Dora (Sarah Cribdon), Peggotty (Annie Gay) and Jane Murdstone (Cathryn Bowler).

I am told the production was sold out before opening night. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one glad to have got my ticket early. Rollicking stuff and a credit to all involved.

Millicent Short

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An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Callsby J B Priestley; dir Vicky Whitehill
Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth
21 – 26 October 2013
Good

An Inspector Calls is probably J B Priestley’s best-known play, set in 1912. It examines the callous way in which the moneyed and powerful classes use and abuse poor working class people. The Birling family are comfortably self-congratulatory about their wealth and prospects until the inspector arrives and demonstrates the role of each of those present in the destruction and death of a poor girl who had worked in Birling’s factory. Yet the inspector’s presence is ethereal and, once this is discovered, we see that, although the Birling daughter and son have had their consciences stirred, the others had been merely concerned with bad publicity.

The initial complacency of the family gives way to fear, regrets, recrimination and panic during the inspector’s revelations and this should be reflected on the stage. There should be a steady escalation of tension and stripping away of social niceties to reveal the ugly creatures below. Then the re-donning of the mask by Mr Birling in particular would have an effective grotesqueness. Although this production made some efforts in this direction, I felt that it really needed that extra level to give the audience a memorable experience. On the whole it felt not much different from a whole host of drawing-room plays: interesting and amusing, but not gripping.

Within those constraints, the performances were generally good. I particularly liked Nadia Parkes as Sheila Birling and Gill Bowser as Sybil Birling. Inspector Goole was played with style and control by John Dawson, but I could have wished he had been more commanding and perhaps a little scary.

I admired the moving wall at the front of the set and liked the idea of having the dead girl appear under the streetlamp in her various guises as each person was questioned. This was played by the same actor as played the Birlings’ maid, Fay Staton. Something perhaps could have been made of the fact that the characters were also alike in many ways; the maid could have been destroyed by the Birlings as easily as the dead girl.

So, enjoyable as it was; but I feel it could have been more.

Inkblot