David Copperfield, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

Who is David Copperfield? From the opening of Giles Havergal's production of his own adaptation of Dickens's veiled autobiography, you might wonder. "Master Davy," "Trotwood," "Doady," "David" and even, suggestively, "Daisy" are the names whispered by the cast in a ghostly kind of voiceover.

Who is David Copperfield? From the opening of Giles Havergal's production of his own adaptation of Dickens's veiled autobiography, you might wonder. "Master Davy," "Trotwood," "Doady," "David" and even, suggestively, "Daisy" are the names whispered by the cast in a ghostly kind of voiceover.

When these figures melt away, we're left with just two Copperfields - the adult (Rupert Frazer) presenting the tale, and the younger (Mark Rice-Oxley) carrying the weight of the story as he progresses from newborn baby to young man.

Havergal has suggested that there are at least 15 different plays in the novel. It's a pity he's not made a success of a single one of them. In his filleting of the rise and fall of Copperfield's fortunes, Havergal's knife appears to have been a bit blunt.

Too often, Frazer's Copperfield walks while Rice-Oxley talks, in an uncomfortable double act, as the adventures and observations of "an undisciplined heart" are recalled. A benign presence rather than a vital dramatic ingredient, Frazer looks too modern, even in a production costumed in a timeless 20th century, though the "child-wife" Dora (Saskia Butler) is dolled up as a fluffy Victorian Spice.

The virtues of Havergal's play - its old-fashioned structure, respect for Dickens's characters and reliance on simple storytelling to develop relationships - are worthy enough, but his production scarcely touches the boundaries of modern theatre. The poverty, misery and bleakness of Copperfield's boyhood years are skimmed over, while the familiar bits of the novel are pointed up with a deliberateness that threatens to turn the evening into a lesson, submerging what humour there is. What Havergal no doubt intended to be epic turns out as a series of non-sequential episodes with little cumulative effect.

The play is set on the cavernous space within Simon Higlett's frame of ramshackle wooden walls, a broad road stretching into darkness. A few backdrops indicate a sail, a theatrical curtain or a bottling factory, so that this versatile set with its scattering of books accommodates schoolroom, dormitory, factory, seashore, London hotel, office, garden etc. The actors manage to bring some intimacy to their exchanges despite the feeling of their being marooned on some vast island.

Ellen Sheean's Betsey Trotwood is formidable, and Candida Benson better as Agnes than as David's mother, while Steven O'Neill is a shifty rather than malignant Uriah Heep. As the jovial Micawber and the enigmatic Steerforth, Andy Hockley and Gregory Fox-Murphy get beneath the surface of the slightly cardboard characters Havergal has created, while Peter Rylands's Dan Peggotty and Celyn Jones's Ham are as true and rough as any "sea porkypines". Richard Taylor's soundtrack - neo-classical pastoral with a dash of schmaltz - adds to the filmic effect. Still, our emotions aren't greatly engaged.

To 28 May (0113-213 7700)

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