There's no point, of course, in comparing the National Youth Theatre's Nicholas Nickleby with the 1980 production by the RSC when it really was royal and one's appetite for dramatisations of 19th-century novels still keen.
Even judging it on its own terms, however, Edward Wilson's production is a very uneven one. Lotte Collett's costumes – dove grey, cream, salmon, and taupe – against a simple, tobacco-coloured set are easy on the eye, and the constant scene-changing is handled fluidly and efficiently. As is now the fashion, several actors from a previous scene often remain onstage, observing. But their unobtrusive presence contributes to the texture of the play, reminding us that everyone's actions create ripples of effect on those unseen.
The acting, however, does not show the unity and discipline of the design and movement. Rafe Spall (son of Timothy) is far and away the best performer. As the one-eyed, sadistic Wackford Squeers, he is a creepy combination of Warren Clarke, Quasimodo, and how one imagines WC Fields might have behaved when he wasn't acting.
The production on the whole suffers from insufficient and ill-maintained energy. Tim Delap, as Nicholas is handsome and well-spoken and ably projects naïve charm and integrity, but for much of the time is too tentative. Wilson has not instilled in everyone a sense of tragedy (one hears petulance in some of these voices rather than sorrow) or of period style and deportment, most noticeably in Nicholas's sister, Kate. Instead of a sweet Victorian miss, driven to defiance only by the demands of honour, we get a sour old bossyboots who seems about to whip out a "Votes for Women" placard and whack the men over the head with it.
The most successful performances are given by those playing Dickens's grotesques and comic turns. Besides Spall, these include Frances Bucknall's hysterically pretentious Mrs Wititterley; Anna Hamilton's fluffy, squeaky Miss La Creevy; and Lucy Voller's constantly, absurdly theatrical Mrs. Crummles.
The play has been trimmed by about an hour and the ending softened – instead of holding aloft the body of the crippled Smike on a bare stage as a reminder of our complicity in his suffering, Nicholas now cradles him and is joined on stage by several happy couples under a gentle snowfall. This seems closer to Dickens's intentions but unhappily sums up this rather lightweight Nickleby.
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