Bleak House, New Vic Theatre, Staffordshire

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The Independent Culture

Before Bleak House begins, Inspector Bucket appears in the foyer of the New Vic Theatre inviting the public to turn detective and help him solve a murder mystery. We get our bearings with the help of an enlarged map on which are perched tiny, illuminated models, from stately home to slum, of buildings featured in Dickens's novel. Backstage we visit the scene of the crime via glimpses of Krook's rag-and-bottle shop, a glassy-eyed Lady Dedlock staring back at us through a rain-streaked window, Miss Flite's bird-filled garret, and the blood-spattered desk at which Tulkinghorn died. Scrutinising each small scenario, poring over every scrap of spidery writing, hanging on to snippets of information supplied by throaty-voiced actors, the audience clearly enjoyed dipping its collective toe into this piece of immersive theatre.

On stage the legal beagles of the Court of Chancery are knee-deep in papers. The famously long-running litigation, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, is just one of the cases lining the pockets of lawyers and clerks. The miniature set which Liz Cooke created for the pre-show promenade is not reflected on the drab circular stage where the 11-strong company, sharing 33 roles, pitch their own props, produce makeshift scenery and create lickety-split effects.

In filleting Dickens's complex, 998-page story, the adaptor and director Theresa Heskins has succeeded in preserving the thriller aspect of the plot but has lost some of the tale's rich texture. There's a plodding quality to the chills and thrills of what should be a sequence of cliffhanging events. But since Dickens presents the society of his day as a confused, stifling muddle, within which there are many layers of connective subplot, it is to Heskins's credit that she maintains a clear narrative structure within an inevitably bitty script and an over-busy production.

To 24 July (01782 717962)