A show which speaks volumes

The Mystery Of Charles Dickens | Comedy Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

Imagine the talents of, say, Steven Berkoff and Martin Amis combined in the one man. Double the result and add a strong dash of impulsive generosity. You are now on your way to imagining what it must have been like to witness Charles Dickens in full flow at one of his celebrated public readings, the strain of which hastened his death. Such was the impact of these sell-out events that his fellow-novelist, Wilkie Collins, was betrayed into a rare, spooky solecism when describing them. Dickens, he reported, "literally electrified" the audience.

Imagine the talents of, say, Steven Berkoff and Martin Amis combined in the one man. Double the result and add a strong dash of impulsive generosity. You are now on your way to imagining what it must have been like to witness Charles Dickens in full flow at one of his celebrated public readings, the strain of which hastened his death. Such was the impact of these sell-out events that his fellow-novelist, Wilkie Collins, was betrayed into a rare, spooky solecism when describing them. Dickens, he reported, "literally electrified" the audience.

The Mystery of Charles Dickens - a solo show custom-built for Simon Callow by the great novelist's biographer, Peter Ackroyd - is an attempt to generate a similar sense of occasion in the form of a monologue about the author, with acted-out vignettes from the novels. It is not a straightforward recreation of a reading, though it keeps half-merging into one. Callow appears as an Ackroyd-scripted version of himself, wearing a black corduroy suit and fetching waistcoat and first seen in the meditative pose of the famous painting of Dickens in his study dreaming about his myriad characters. We are then taken through a chronological account of the Life and Works - from the traumatic shame of his father's bankruptcy and childhood consignment to menial labour in the blacking factory, to the years of very restless triumph still haunted by that early ordeal.

Much of the first half feels a mite stiff and artificial. Callow's lecturing manner is more florid than the Chelsea Flower Show, his voice the last word in actor's fruity mandarin. But he also seems oddly constrained, perhaps by the fact that he's neither wholly himself nor entirely Ackroyd's ventriloquist dummy. Thus, while he's able to launch into brilliant feats of impersonation (his one-man version of the trial scene from Pickwick Papers is outstanding), the novel excerpts are, in general, too busy illustrating Ackroyd's hard-ridden thesis about the links between the fiction and the psychological hang-ups to have sufficient room to breathe.

After the interval, though, as the narrative coincides with the period when Dickens was giving readings, Callow's performance and Patrick Garland's beautifully lit production go into glorious orbit.

One of his daughters recalled how when her father was working on a novel, he would dash to the mirror and pull his face into weird contortions, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, and then race back to his desk and write furiously. Callow, too, seems to be possessed by that driven energy, launching into a comic-grotesque cornucopian identity crisis as his body twists into the gnarled shape of Sairey Gamp (whose bibulous husband would have "drunk the little shoes" off a baby daughter, if they'd had one) or dilates into the patronising chauvinist expansiveness of Mr Podsnap, laying down the law on pronunciation to a guest who has the misfortune to be non-English.

It is easy to sneer at Callow (I've certainly done so myself) for having effectively ceased to be a team actor and for turning himself into a booming, flamboyant solo-phenomenon in specially constructed vehicles - the Emlyn Williams or Michael MacLiammoir of our day. But, as is proved by the second half of this show, he can thoroughly disarm you with the sheer largesse of his theatricality. And though you feel that Dickens would have appreciated the absurd side of this event (it would be good to have his review of it), you sense that he would also have recognised, in Callow, a kindred spirit.

Booking to 4 Nov (020-7369 1731). A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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