With more wit than Martin Chuzzle, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Adam Long has worked his minimising magic on another great writer.
The start of Dickens Abridged would have us believe the scribe behind the world’s favourite Christmas story – no, not the one with the stable and the star, the other one with ghosts and a miraculous transformation – even surpasses the Bard: “Shakespeare was good,” the talented cast of actor/musicians sing, “but Dickens was better.”
In Damian Humbley’s pastiche of the great writer, doesn’t he just know it? Humbley, so acclaimed in Merrily We Roll Along recently, portrays an imagined, caricatured Dickens with swagger, confidence and an unhealthy love for the bludgeoning scene from Oliver Twist.
As we learn more about the great writer’s life, we are treated to a whistle-stop journey through his wordy creations, from a limerick-length squirt through Little Dorrit to a version of Oliver Twist that is close enough to the famous musical to ring more bells than an irritated ghost trying to scare a hardened miser, while just far enough away not to break any irritating copyright laws. “Where is lunch,” anyone?
Long, who also directs, has managed the wondrous theatrical feat of at once being very clever and very silly. It’s almost Pythonesque. The most ridiculous groaner of a one-line gag sits alongside four-line reductions of novels it would take the BBC three months to serialise. While Dickens Abridged doesn’t scrimp on its wig budget – they are many and varied – it’s fair to say it doesn’t have the BBC’s budget. That, of course, is so much the better as the rough edges add to the evening’s charm.
That was never more the case than when, on press night, the unthinkable happened and the cord of Tiny Tim’s electric guitar was tangled offstage – that’s right, Tiny Tim’s traditional Fender Stratocaster – before the instrument lost power for his big solo. Gerard Carey bravely sang it instead transforming an awkward moment into one of joy.
The show’s website boasts that Dickens Abridged is “unlike any Dickens-based show you’ve ever seen before”. Most likely that’s the case, unless you saw Long’s Dickens Unplugged, which ran at the Harold Pinter theatre in 2008. Much of that show, and certainly its spirit, can be found in this, from Dickens’ love of bludgeoning to those single verse reductions of major works.
All of a sudden the West End feels very Christmassy. At the Vaudeville we’ve Eric And Little Ern bringing us Morecambe And Wise. At the Trafalgar Studios Julie Madly Deeply offers helpings of Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music. Now at the Arts we have snow, spirits and salvation in a 10 minute version of A Christmas Carol. Okay, the guitar might not be the most traditional and the thought that Jacob Marley could be conjured by a trip to Nando’s certainly is not in the original text, but even when layered with silliness, Long keeps the tale’s heart alive, as he does throughout the show. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.