Friday, 30 May 2008

REVIEW: "Dickens Unplugged"

After bringing Shakespeare, Star Wars, and American History to minimalist and humorous states of redux, Adam Long, co-founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, is back in London with a new work using the same old formula: this time abridging the works of Charles Dickens in the music hall inspired Dickens Unplugged.

The setup, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is simple: a group of five performers (in this case a Californian Dickens cover band) perform highly edited versions of the author’s works, ranging from one-song quickies (The Old Curiosity Shop) to multi-scene epics (David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol) interspersed with commentary on Dickens’s life. Were it not for the occasional use of post-watershed language, the RZ would gladly recommend this as a family show to introduce the aforementioned classic novels to younger punters, though to the show’s credit, the few instances of profanity are used appropriately and sparingly to emphasise major events or conflicts.

The effect is achieved by changing Jemima Penny’s costumes faster than Evening Standard headlines, and there is cross-dressing a-plenty as the all-male cast take dame it up to play a host of wives, including both of Dickens’s own. Needless to say, timing is everything and the cast were on when the RZ attended, even though (he suspects) it was understudy Ben Heathcoate’s first time on during this run.

And the songs (this being a musical)? They’re well harmonised late-Victorian inspired pieces for guitar and drum with a few notes played on a piano. The lyrics are sometimes too clever (or fast) for their own good, but Gareth Owen’s sound design refrains from bludgeoning the audience with volume, even those up front. Lez Brotherston’s set maintains the grimness of lower class Victorian living, but at the same time seems more appropriate for Sweeney Todd than the light-hearted fluff it contains (including two easy to spot theatre parodies)

On the whole, Dickens Unplugged is amusing in the same way as The 39 Steps, but doesn’t quite come together in a way that’s hard to put one’s finger on, perhaps because Mr. Long is simply caught in a rut after doing the same gig time and again, or the cast were holding back on a two show day. Either way, it doesn’t stop Dickens from being solid matinee fare capable of passing a rainy afternoon or providing a rest when running around the West End, and if you find you don’t like it, each act is approximately 45 minutes so you don’t have to suffer long before you flee.

Where: Comedy Theatre
When: M/W/Th/Fr/Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 15:00, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £16-46
Concessions: Seniors can advance book M-F performances for £21, disabled patrons can book all shows for £21, student rush 1 hr before curtain for the same.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £21. It’s fun but not that fun and offers are abundant.
RZ Other Notes: Dickens Unplugged may not do overly well in the West End (the RZ could swear the upper two levels were closed yesterday) but it will undoubtedly do well on tour and in regional/community productions.

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