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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Dickens Unplugged
Comedy Theatre Summer 2008; revived as Dickens Abridged, Arts Theatre Winter 2013

(Scroll down for our review of the 2013 version)

Adam Long, one of the trio who created The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged two decades ago, now subjects Dickens to the same irreverent scrutiny, and the result is a couple of hours of smiles, giggles, occasional out-loud laughs and even the random moment of honest pathos.

Following much the same pattern as the Shakespeare show, the cast of five race through the Life And Works. A few of the novels - Bleak House, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop - are wittily summarised in a quick song each, while the better-known works - Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol - are the subject of extended comic sketches.

Oliver's story is turned into a jolly musical, much to the outrage of the onstage Dickens, and part of the joke is that the new songs are different enough from Lionel Bart's to avoid royalty payments but close enough to be recognisable parodies.

David Copperfield puts the emphasis on David's blank and cheerful obliviousness to the dramas around him; Two Cities makes the revolting French peasants sound oddly like revolting (in another sense) American teenagers, and Christmas Carol finds an unexpected new use for Tiny Tim's crutch.

My 14-year-old companion enjoyed herself immensely, and told me to assure you that you don't have to have read the books to enjoy the jokes, though I'll add that seeing the cleverness of the allusions and parodies adds further levels of fun.

And every once in a while they pause to quote Dickens directly, as in a description of David Copperfield's parting from his friends, or to adapt the material without parody, as in a touching song for Sidney Carlton, just to show their respect and remind us of what a quietly powerful writer Dickens was.

The five performers each night are drawn from a pool of seven, of whom Matthew Hendrickson, Simon Jermond and Gabriel Vick seem the most regular. All sing, act and play various instruments as required, almost all wind up in drag at one point or another, and all work together well to keep the energy and fun levels high throughout.

So, a reassurance - you don't have to know much Dickens to get the jokes, though it does help, and it might actually make you want to go out and read the originals. In any case, you're assured of a couple of hours of light and happy fun.

Gerald Berkowitz

A shorter version of the show was tried out at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007. Here's what we wrote then:

Dickens Unplugged   Adam Long, one of the trio who developed the fast-moving spoof Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged two decades ago, has turned his attention to Charles Dickens, and the result, while perhaps not quite as laugh-a-second as the Shakespeare show, is also considerably less frantic, and thus possibly even more enjoyable. A cast of five invoke songs, sketches and sight gags to work their way irreverently through a handful of Dickens novels and an outline of his life.  Oliver Twist is a five-minute condensation of the musical, interrupted by a Dickens horrified by its sugar coating. Bleak House and Great Expectations are quickly dismissed through very funny Gilbertian patter songs. David Copperfield gets a fuller treatment, with the quick-changing and occasionally in-drag cast racing through the plot and presenting the characters in ways that will make it difficult to read the novel seriously ever again. Barkus is a leering bumpkin, Dora thick as a plank, and David so cheerfully self-absorbed as to be oblivious to all the human dramas around him. A Christmas Carol gets what is almost a straight rush-through, though it might surprise some to find Tiny Tim quite so Chav-ish or to learn that the terrifying visions of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come include television and the Millennium Dome. Obviously, it helps to know some Dickens in order to appreciate the real cleverness of some of the jokes, but there's enough broad silliness to entertain even those who don't know their Oliver from their Copperfield.   Gerald Berkowitz

Dickens Abridged
Arts Theatre  Winter 2013-2014

Adam Long, one of the American trio who came up with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged more than twenty years ago, here turns his comic attention to Britain's second greatest writer. The format is much the same as the Shakespeare show, as a cast of five romp through some of the major novels in parody and song. 

The show has been tweaked a bit since its 2007 and 2008 versions, but remains essentially the same.

Their version of Oliver Twist owes as much to the Lionel Bart musical as the novel, they single out the silliest plot twists in David Copperfield and ignore the rest, and their zip through A Christmas Carol assumes everyone is bored by the original and happy to send it up. 

The lesser novels are disposed of with comic efficiency, the plots of Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop summarised in a single-versed song each, Nicholas Nickleby turned into a folk ballad and Little Dorrit a limerick. 

Except for the just-this-side-of-paying-royalties echoes of Lionel Bart in the Oliver sequence and a direct steal from Stephen Sondheim later, the music is generally American bluegrass and yee-haw country, the incongruity being part of the joke. (Actually, that joke does wear thin after a while, as does the over-reliance on the gag of bearded men galumphing about in drag as female characters.) 

The tone throughout is one of having fun with the material without totally disrespecting it, and two of the quietly most effective moments come when they stop joking and simply read a brilliant passage of description from David Copperfield or build a lovely song out of the last line of A Tale Of Two Cities. 

Obviously, if you know the novels being parodied, you'll get all the wit and in-jokes, but enough of the humour comes from the broad comedy and high energy of the delivery that even a total Dickens virgin could find much to enjoy. Gerard Carey, Matthew Hendrickson, Damian Humbley, Kit Orton and Jon Robyns play everyone, their quick changes, minimal costumes and occasional prop malfunctions part of the fun. 

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Dickens Unplugged - Comedy 2008; Arts 2013