David Edgar’s landmark 1980 adaptation of Dickens’ tale, centred around young schoolmaster turned actor Nicholas Nickleby, is epic in scope but something of an endurance test. While visually rich, and with occasional scenes that are both impressive and theatrically imaginative, there is a relentlessly episodic quality to the production that makes it tough going.
Many of Dickens’ trademark themes - social injustice, child violence and guilty secrets - drive the story, but Edgar’s obsession with detail leaves the plot confusing. While skilfully delivered songs and a fabulous parody of Romeo and Juliet are striking, other scenes are full of pointless stage business, overcooked and contributing little to the action.
The set is a magnificent construction of spiral staircases and gangways that at once catches the imagination and is then left woefully under used. Key scenes, such as Nicholas’ rescue of the beleaguered Smike from a violent beating, are under-powered, and there is a generally dog-eared feel to the production. Daniel Weyman plays Nicholas with spirit but is never more than one-dimensional, while several of his fellow actors remind you that the pantomime season is upon us.
David Yelland as Nicholas’ scheming uncle Ralph brings gravity to a production in which social and political dimensions are curiously missing, doubly puzzling given the political bent of much of David Edgar’s own theatre. Ripe for a Brechtian interpretation, the stage choreography never reflects a clear sense of direction or a strong theatrical imagination. It is glossy when it should be gritty, with an ensemble who rely too much on the audience to lift the energy and tempo of the performance.