Nicholas Nickleby, Gielgud Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

This Nicholas Nickleby is as unmissable as the original of 1980, yet it is a different, darker play. David Edgar's adaptation is not short on laughs, and the section in which Nicholas is taken up by the gloriously crummy theatrical company of Vincent Crummles remains a dream of bliss. But what has been distilled in this Chichester Festival Theatre production (directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks) is the pain and torment of its original author.

The narrative of a young man who is the plaything of fate is a showcase for Dickens's fears and fantasies. His self-dramatising masochism is given full rein in the foolish Lord Frederick and the crippled outcast Smike, who, in order to destroy the man who has wronged them, must themselves die. Also thrown into relief is Dickens's distrust of apparently helpless women. Jane Bertish in two parts embodies this, as does Abigail McKern's Mrs Nickleby, a mother whose naivety and garrulity are the fluffy ruffles over a nature as complacent as it is vain. The mood is heightened with wailing, mist and Simon Higlett's weatherbeaten faades, rickety staircases, and balconies looped with hangman's ropes.

Daniel Weyman is a Nicholas whose surprise and anger at the cruelties of the world are real and raw, Richard Bremmer's Newman Noggs is that kindhearted alcoholic scarecrow to the life, Alison Fiske's Miss LaCreevy shows us the good sense and grit beneath the decayed gentility. The most delightful actor is Bob Barrett, his Lord Frederick an endearingly vulnerable fledgling, his Yorkshireman a chap who, as described in the novel, makes one happy just to look at him. The only letdown is David Yelland as the villainous Ralph Nickleby, less a bloodsucker and pimp than a man who sells insurance on TV. It is also unfortunate that the terrible monosyllable of the climactic scene, which should and, last time, did drop like a stone into a well is here delivered in a tone of throbbing melodrama.

It seems extraordinary that six hours with no adult passion merely brief, unconvincing whispers of love and sex can be so engrossing. But Dickens takes us back to a time when our lives were not our own, when our most desperate desires were for food, warmth and the confidence that we would not be hurt by those in charge. Call that time the world before the 20th century, or call it childhood, what could be more frightening than that?

Rhoda Koenig

To 27 January (0870 950 0915)