Wednesday, 12 September 2012

In Review: A Taste of Dickens - Grand Theatre

Michael Nunn

Lancaster Theatre Productions: A Taste Of Dickens
An Evening of Rehearsed Readings to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Devised, written and directed by Michael Nunn
performed at The Grand Theatre, Lancaster,
and served with a Victorian Buffet in the Interval.
Part of the Lancaster Heritage Open Days Festival
Friday 7 September 2012 at 7.30pm
£15 / £12
Reviewed by Frank Ledwith

Is it possible to portray the life and works of Charles Dickens, one of our great and most prolific novelists, in one evening of readings?  This was the ambitious aim of Michael Nunn who wrote and directed the performance of ‘A Taste of Dickens’ at the Grand Theatre, Lancaster.

He did make the task somewhat more manageable by narrowing the focus to Dickens and his portrayal of food and eating but then, which is as praiseworthy as so seldom done, included input from the author’s Scottish wife Catherine, who wrote ‘What Shall We Have for Dinner’- a book of sumptuous and straightforward recipes which in its day rivalled Mrs Beaton’s books in popularity.

In addition to the ambition of the project, there was a delicious interval buffet, provided by The Borough on Dalton Square, which gave the audience a taste of the beef, fish, cakes and sweets mentioned in the readings which were the staples of middle-class families in the Victorian era.

The entertainment consisted of a series of largely chronological readings from Dickens, enlivened by gesture and actions, performed by a cast of local actors.  These were linked by a perceptive narration of the author’s life and works.  In the first half of the show we were entertained with stories with larger than life, even grotesque characters in which were portrayed many vivid, even cinematic details of such things as rapacious dogs or boozy passengers on a stormy ferry outing on the Thames.

In the second half, the mood darkened to portray something of Dickens’ later and great novels and the cheerful laughter of the audience was changed into a more thoughtful and reflective response.  Here we were dealing with the some of Dickens’ blackest villains such as Bill Sykes, with the appalling starvation of orphans in the workhouse and with the tensions between husband and wife in managing the household servants.

As an extra, local bonus we enjoyed a description of the stay by Dickens and fellow writer Wilkie Collins at a hotel in Lancaster, and his account of the wretchedness of the inmates of the Moor mental hospital.  The final act of the entertainment was a reading by Michael Nunn of the poignant farewell speech given by Dickens at his last public reading.  For us listening, it sounded like the author’s death-bed speech and in some ways it was since, within a few months of giving it, he was dead.

Overall it was an entertaining evening, with the man and his writing put within a historical context and with a great deal of detail about the surprisingly healthy (and large!) appetites of the Victorian well-to-do.  The drama was very much an ensemble piece with all the actors delivering in a free flowing and energetic style.  It would  be invidious to single out individuals so I would offer congratulations to all the cast for the enormous amount of work which clearly went into producing and performing what was aimed to be (and was), an enthralling family entertainment which gave a taste of Dickens in a whole variety of ways.

Frank Ledwith

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