The Mystery of Charles Dickens Review at The Playhouse Theatre
The only mystery in The Mystery of Charles Dickens is found in the title. During the two hour play no mystery surrounding the life or nature of the great man was allowed to remain. Rather he was laid bare, brought to life; his issues, his complexities, his brilliance were served up to us by the writer and the actor with pride, respect and affection.
Clearly the writer, Peter Ackroyd, and Simon Callow both have a deep knowledge of and love for their subject. The feeling that they are speaking not only of a revered genius but also of a wayward friend vibrates throughout the play, and rescues it from the brink of becoming a sycophantic lecture. The same depth of knowledge is assumed in the audience, and it is not always made instantly clear whether we are listening to Callow, Dickens or one of the many characters he portrays so ably throughout the play as he slips from one to the other without preamble.
The true pleasure of course is Callow. From the moment he steps out of the picture frame – a life size copy of Dickens’ Dream by Robert W Buss – and begins to speak, we are gripped. As he chats familiarly, leading us from Dickens’ tough early years through his wild successes and his disgraces and onto his physical decline and death, he sounds almost as if he were reminiscing, and we are spellbound, like children cross-legged at his feet. The stage – a clever combination of skewed picture frame and mini theatre – is ideal for his pottering and leanings, and the lighting beautifully effective and appropriate. Throughout the history he weaves apposite sketches from Dickens’ books, instantly becoming a villainous Fagin, a gin-soaked Mrs Gamp or a murderous Bill Sykes, giving us a tantalising glimpse into the story and then just as quickly slipping back into the role of narrator. In the course of Dickens’ book performance tours, he rapidly became one character after another, after another, in quick succession, just as the author did himself. He excels at the grotesque, both in face and voice, and his versatility and emotional skill is impressive. The first half, being principally historical and factual verged on the dry, but the second half, with Callow as its cast of thousands was a joy. His rendering of Nancy’s murder by Bill Sykes, which so horribly obsessed its author, was harrowing and beautifully dramatic.
Despite the wonderful writing and acting, I think it is probably fair to say that you need at least a working knowledge of Dickens’ works to properly appreciate this play. Those of you who, like me, read his books long ago will probably leave the theatre feeling as though you have fallen back in love with the characters, and with a burning desire to go home and read the books again. Which is, I think, what Ackroyd, Callow, and Dickens himself would have wanted.
Review by Genni Trickett
Content updated 1st May 2014