Whenever I am asked the question, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen on stage?” I invariably respond that it is the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby. It was not without a little trepidation, therefore, that I approached a recording of this event after forty years, thinking that time and changing tastes might have knocked this production from its perch. But I’m pleased to report that it was a triumph then and it’s a triumph now.
Dickens’ original sprawling novel was one of his earliest and written in his trademark serial form incorporating a vast canvas of characters from all walks of life. David Edgar, the adapter, was charged with bringing the whole book to the stage rather than, as had been the case before, selected extracts and one of the brilliant things about this version is that it does so by preserving the varied tones of the original. Thus, there is tragedy, comedy, pathos, pastiche, dancing, singing, ensemble work, choral speaking, innovative staging and most importantly a clear sense of Dickens’ voice. The whole was melded together by directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird within the brilliant designs of John Napier. The production was, apparently, in danger of capsizing throughout rehearsal, many of the critics were sniffy and the huge acclaim it garnered in Britain and America was somewhat unexpected. It lives on now with near legendary status and is justifiably spoken of in hushed tones by those who were actually there at a performance.
I saw it in 1981 at the Aldwych Theatre in what was basically an all day sitting. The programme (costing 45p!!) informs me the running time was some 9 ¼ hours with a total interval time of just 39 minutes. While I may not have entirely replicated those timings for the lockdown viewing it was pretty close and Parts 1 and 2 of this, in all senses of the word, epic production fairly flew by. The time commitment required is huge, of course, but the rewards are many. 39 actors playing well over 100 named roles plus interacting as an ensemble is still a sight to behold – though I was occasionally struck by quite how many of the performers are now no longer with us.
Among these is Roger Rees playing the title role and doing so with a conviction which transcends the somewhat bland and even priggish nature of the character. Here is a decent, honourable young man concerned with protecting his family and friends against an insidious infection (in this case money) but at the same time deeply committed to fighting social injustice and deprivation. Emily Richard as his sister Kate is equally determined and motivated by goodness though the character does suffer from the Dickensian tendency to being maudlin and to idealising young vulnerable women. Their nemesis is their uncle Ralph who, to quote Wilde “understands the price of everything, and the value of nothing”. A never better John Woodvine slowly reveals that the man does actually have a heart and is particularly effective in the closing hours of the play.
Everybody (apart from Rees) plays multiple roles, transitioning with dexterity and an eye for the eccentric of which Dickens himself would have approved. They are also evidently having a great deal of fun. Mentions of individual performers almost seem invidious but there are some standouts. David Threlfall as Smike is simply sensational, Alun Armstrong and Lila Kaye as the Squeers are a consummate double act, Bob Peck’s John Browdie and Mulberry Hawk are cleverly and clearly delineated, John McEnery as Mr Mantalini is a comic joy and Edward Petherbridge successfully brings the oddity that is Newman Noggs to fruition. I was particularly struck by the skills of Suzanne Bertish and Janet Dale in bringing a variety of delicious comic characters to life – this list could easily go on and on. And then, of course, there are the rightly celebrated ensemble scenes where London is brought vividly to life and stagecoaches, omnibuses and other forms of transport are created and dismantled in the blink of an eye. One key sequence in Part Two still sends a shiver down the spine as the actors simply pivot round and the lighting changes to show the difference between the haves and the have nots. It is a stunning image right at the centre of the play’s message.
The themes of the nearly 200 year old book and 40 year old production are still shockingly relevant with the class divide and the power of money still very much in evidence. It is also noticeable in these post #MeToo days how much of Kate’s story still resonates. And, of course, for those of us missing it so much the transformative power of theatre both within the story and within the production are a bittersweet reminder of happier times. The gloriously clunky version of Romeo and Juliet which ends Part One is rightly celebrated and the whole business of theatre is shown to be uplifting and a positive boon to the participants. Both the Crummles company and the RSC company itself shows us the way towards being better human beings. I cannot recommend this production highly enough and, if you’ve never seen this legendary piece of theatre (especially if you’re under 40 years old), give yourself a huge lockdown treat – I promise you it will be time well spent. Oh yes, the book’s pretty good too!
Production photos by John Caird
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