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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud Theatre

By Matt Wolf

  Emma Manton, Zoe Waites and Daniel Weyman/Ph:Robert Day

Lightning hasn't quite struck twice with the West End transfer of the Chichester festival production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, even if the two-part, six-and-a-half hour production - transferring intact from London to Toronto - boasts a handful of absolutely first-rate performances. Those with particularly long memories will recall the Broadway run of this play over a quarter-century ago, an event still associated in my mind with an evening at the now sadly-departed Sam's restaurant on West 45th Street when the cast - headed by Roger Rees and David Threlfall - walked into the eatery at 11: 30 PM after a two-show day only to receive an instant, impromptu standing ovation from the assemblage. (That, don't forget, was when the event was eight-and-a-half hours, prior to filleting.) Originally a Royal Shakespeare Company venture, the show is a direct antecedent of Les Miserables, and it's one of those nice ironies of which the theater offers up many that this production - though unrelated to its RSC forebear - has in fact been playing next door to Les Mis on Shaftesbury Avenue: think of them as kissing theatrical cousins.

The play's first directors, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, revived Nicholas in the mid-80s, with Michael Siberry in the title role, in a decent-enough staging that didn't set the theater alight either side of the Atlantic. And here it is again, co-directed by Philip Franks and Jonathan Church, to remind us that large-scale ensemble work is still a priority of the British theater, even if the specific narrative mode by which Nicholas operates now looks more than a little dated and some of its poor theater techniques - how do you assemble a coach on stage? - have been pastiched for keeps by the likes of The 39 Steps. The play is in some ways of increased interest now in its reliance on that onetime dramatic staple - anyone remember the word plot - which is all but ignored or deliberately bypassed by the Caryl Churchills, Harold Pinters, and, in America, Sarah Ruhls of the world, who are more than prepared to trade in the hurtling storytelling of Nicholas for a dramatic strategy at once more elusive and allusive. And, truth to tell, the rewards of the multiple narrator approach, with a 27-strong cast turning to clue in an audience on events that are about to unfold, works up to a point - or, shall we say, until the plot supersedes a public's ability to stay on top of it, which is what happens in a (markedly inferior) Part 2, as the evening seems to want to hurry itself home.

The real pleasures come in Part 1, as we hear of the passing of Nickleby pere and meet members of a rural family who seem well-meaning in the extreme. The notable exception to the prevailing decency - at least within the family ranks - is Ralph Nickleby, the unemotional scold of an uncle, whom David Yelland invests with layers of intrigue and fascination in one of the performances of the occasion. (Yelland is a replacement for Leigh Lawson, who took the role in Chichester.) Remarking of a broken heart that some people I believe, have none to break, young Nicholas is immediately viewed in opposition to his fierce-seeming uncle, from whose chill and moral repugnance Nicholas visibly recoils. (At the same time, and without giving too much away, one must add that the scene indicating Ralph's demise is among the production's clumsiest.) Daniel Weyman, too, is a remarkable, notably wiry Nicholas, quite possibly the best I've seen in a bearing and rectitude that never once turn sanctimonious alongside a fire in the belly that shows us the Nicholas brave and strong enough to strike out at the evil schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers<


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