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The Movieum of London in association with Zenith Productions presents


the London Premiere of Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Charles Dickens


David Copperfield

 

Directed by Sam Donovan


Musical Director: Adrian Salmon


The Chamber


The Movieum of London


2  December 2008 – 31 January, 2009

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Just when you thought there could, surely, be nothing new on the Southbank, as it seems as though every stone of possibility has already been overturned in that area, heaving as it does with entertainment venues in numbers rivalled only (in terms of population vs. demand) with the teeming time of Shakespeare himself, something entirely new emerges, highlighting both the tattered glory of the venue it is housed in as well as the performance itself.

To my mind, the first ever production to be staged in The Chamber, former HQ for the Greater London Council (GLC) inside The Movieum of London in County Hall in its auspicious position opposite the Houses of Parliament is a rare occasion and an opportunity to be part of theatre history in London.  As such it is an event to be celebrated, proposing as this venue does, to function as ‘a bridge between the Fringe and the West –End by showcasing performances ranging from the classics to new innovative writing’. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and encouraged in this historically magnificent 220-seat debating chamber. Having reviewed productions in all manner of venues over the past three years plus ranging from the capitol’s wealth of atmospheric pub theatres and historically linked venues such as Shakespeare’s Globe and The Old Vic Theatre to more unusual locales such as The Golden Hinde and Southwark Cathedral, and more recently, a tent in Victoria Park, the editors and writers of independent EXTRA! EXTRA! could not help but wish both Marcus and The Chamber in The Movieum and Adam Montgomery and Richard Plumley and Zenith Productions, who’ve courageously launched their maiden theatrical voyage there, continued good fortune as well as a wealth of open-minded and heartily expressive individuals to make up their audiences. This is a venture of the type which Charles Dickens, himself would have, no doubt, wished to participate in, as both actor and author.  And, participate Dickens does, through Giles Havergal’s measured adaptation of the author’s most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield.

Written in 1850, mid way through Dickens career as an author, this novel, in addition to being his personal favourite, was the first novel he had ever written in the first person, an aspect of the novel which would, in and of itself, present a multitude of challenges to the most seasoned of adapters.  Yet, under the attentive direction of Sam Donovan, Giles Havergal’s adaptation still manages to capture something of the spirit of Dickens’ coming of age, picaresque tale, despite its omission of some of the story’s more arguably expendable characters as well as some of its more pivotal, albeit secondary aspects.  The first stage adaptation of David Copperfield, Little Em’ly (1869) by Andrew Halliday, enjoyed a long run at Drury Lane Theatre and, apparently, met with the hearty approval of Dickens himself. 
The storyline of David Copperfield traces the footsteps of the title character, from birth to coming of age, through his orphaning, adolescence and young adulthood, through marriage and widower-hood, culminating in his finding of both himself and true love. 

Tristan Bernays makes a very likeable David, though his opening scenes, in which his character is but a boy, might be more credible and, moving, if he were to focus more upon the adult characters around him during pivotal moments, rather than on the audience. Though I’m sure press night nerves and enthusiasm may have played their own roles here as well – quite understandable in such a commanding chamber! However, Bernay’s noble spirited performance made me feel quite confident that, just as Copperfield himself grows into his own skin more comfortably as his story moves along in the novel, so will Bernay’s performance during the run.

Tristan Bernays as David Copperfield

Katy Secombe is very fine as both the Copperfields’ housekeeper, Peggotty and, Mrs. Micawber, tugging at the heartstrings and inspiring with her generosity in the former and encouraging much laugher in the latter. Her appearances were always most welcome throughout the performance.

Katy Secombe as Peggotty

.Likewise with the marvellous John Elnaugh, who creates a Mr. Micawber that Dickens would have been proud to lay claim to, which indeed, it seems he may have already done, as the character is based upon his own gregarious but gambling father. Similar praise could be aimed towards the wonderfully animated Janet Jefferies, who brings David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood fully to life, despite the absence of her childlike, amiable friend and confidant Mr. Dick in this adaptation.

Janet Jefferies as Betsey Trotwood

A rousing round of applause too, to both Jonathan G. Robbins who was very convincing in both of his distinctly different roles as mean spirited Mr. Murdstone and simple but true Ham Peggotty as well as Nick Howard-Brown, who portrayed Uriah Heep with all his gluttonous dominance intact, while managing to neatly sidestep, the over the topness that succulent role so often invites, and directors too often encourage. Tom Murphy also gives a fine performance as Dan Peggotty, brother of the Copperfield’s housekeeper, though his characterisation of Mr. Wickifield’s decline in fortune could have done with a bit more exploration through it’s directing, which might have added welcome depth. Paul Jellis also seems very well suited to his role as Little Emily ‘s reckless lover James Steerforth, as his intelligent performance enabled an understanding that despite his character’s gentlemanly demeanour, Steerforth was in any event, involved in whatever took his fancy for whatever he could get from it.

Speaking of ‘little’ Emily, she was well played by Elspeth Rae in her stage debut (as a record three characters!), as was David’s sensitive young mother, Mrs. Copperfield. However, Ms. Rae’s portrayal of David’s naive young bride Dora jars, as it is far too screechy and exaggerated, and is in dire need of softening as well as lowering of volume, in order to allow the audience to appreciate what a thoughtful young man like David saw in her in the first place! Conversely, Edwina Elek’s portrayal of  ever-loyal Agnes Wickfield is a very sympathetic one, so much so that it is my belief that her skills might also be well utilised in the opposite direction through a brief scene as the (now absent) sister of Mr. Murdstone. The inclusion of that character, however scant, would, no doubt, encourage those unfamiliar with the nuances of the novel, as well as the mores and manners of the time Dickens lived in, to better understand why David’s mother feels inclined to succumb to the untimely end that so many of his literary young wives and mothers fell prey to. A man of domineering, not to mention, gold-digging temperament, such as Mr. Murdstone, bringing an adult sister into his young wife’s household, would have prevented her from having any power in the running of it.  Similarly, Mrs. Trotwood’s quirky friend and confidant, Mr. Dick, whose very presence in a spinster- (not my choice of term for an unmarried woman, but rather one of Dickens’ time) suspicious world instantly brands Betsey Trotwood as not only a force to be reckoned with, but a devil may care nonconformist, in direct opposition to her rather plumy manner and demeanour, which is one of the paradoxes which makes her such an interesting standout amongst Dickens canon of characters. So the elimination of Mr. Dick’s character makes Betsey Trotwood seem like much more of a cliché take over type character, by contemporary standards. Absent from Havergal’s adaptation too, is the determined love interest of the earnest Peggoty, Mr. Barkis, whose eagerness to marry a woman for love, above beauty or wealth, likely reflects Dickens personal beliefs regarding the familial divides of his own life.

In terms of Dickensian era life-circumstances, there is no mention here of what David’s young mother died of, nor, David’s bride Dora, whose quick demise is merely foreshadowed by a cough here, when in reality, both women died as a result of failed pregnancies, the first expiring in child-birth and the second, as the result of a miscarriage. Dickens’ abiding personal sympathy and support of women as a species totally apart from men cannot be underestimated. At the risk of seeming sexist myself, I have to venture a guess that adaptor Havergal may have skirted around these pertinent angles of the story, for fear of risking the loss of the more comedic impetus of Dickens’ novel. However enjoyable those comedic turns are, they might be made all the more so by the inclusion of hints of the story’s feminine pathos, as such incidences were indeed, the norm of the day.  As is often the case with Dickens work, in David Copperfield, he bestows the ability to see and, utilise the humour inherent to the more grim aspects of everyday life, such as continual ‘penury difficulties’, as Mr. Micawber would term them, to the great unwashed! That said, I must confess that I have never seen an adaptation of David Copperfield that more fully embodies the comic aspects of Dickens’ novel!

The set, consisting of a series of wooden planks seemingly randomly arranged is appropriately suggestive of docks, wharves and warehouses. And, as we were advised by one of the producers, much building work had to be done in order to create a stage above the original ‘chair’ of the historic debating chamber. Music also plays an integral role in this production, as musicians, often utilising the aisles, introduce various scenes, and, enhance others with lively or low key interpretations designed to add further contours to the action of the storyline. 

As would be expected, the huge space of the Movieum chamber in and of itself presents its own challenges, and along with Havergal’s pared down, occasionally whistle stop treatment of Dickens’ epic novel, there is much rushing on and off stage, particularly in the first half of the production. However, by the second half of the play, the actors and the production itself seem to settle into their own strides, as the two marry for a much more comfortable union.

In terms of delivery, a financially challenged company might be further compromised in this space. However, the more seasoned members of this cast exhibit very audible delivery without having to raise their voices to a level unnecessary to their characterisations. Additionally, as this venue has NEVER formerly entertained any theatrical performances, other than those of the rhetorical and/or defiant (circa Ken Livingston in the 1980’s) political variety, the director and company have no former productions by which to measure their endeavour.

That said, this production’s hand-made aspects and from the heart angles make it a very appealing one indeed, and, combined with the unique experience of watching it from the spacious leather seats of The Chamber, it is one that you will never forget! Therefore, I strongly urge you to buy tickets for David Copperfield at The Movieum this Christmas season. For, as one of the production’s associate producers observed, ‘There is name more synonymous with Christmas than that of Charles Dickens.’                            

 

Tickets – www.davidcopperfieldlondon.co.uk

The Movieum of London
The Chamber
County Hall
SE1 7PB
£15.00 £12.50 (cons.)
£22.50 Movieum and Show Package
Meal Packages Available
7:30 pm Tues – Sat, 2:30pm Sat matinee and 3:30 Sun. matinee

 

 

 

 

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