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Little Nell review at Theatre Royal Bath

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It was Oscar Wilde who said you would need a heart of stone not to laugh at Little Nell’s death scene in The Old Curiosity Shop. Well, you would need that self-same heart to suppress a chuckle or two at the irony at the centre of Simon Gray’s absorbing new play. For Charles Dickens himself, viewed by his contemporaries as the greatest moralist of his time, had the hots for an actress young enough to be his daughter. The fact that her name was also Nelly only adds to the curiosity.

The play, premiered at the start of the Peter Hall Company summer season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, is based on Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman, but it is by no means a dry literary effort. Hall, who directs, ensures it has a theatricality that is both gripping and vibrant. The format is a splendidly constructed series of flashbacks exploring the effects of the liaison on the two principals and later on their families, along with such themes as the agonies and ecstasies of adultery, the vanity of great literary figures and the pain of thwarted careers.

In the leading roles, Michael Pennington makes Dickens a dangerously flawed figure in private but a giant in public, while Loo Brealey, as Nelly, moves impressively from sweet if knowing innocence to inner strength. There is excellent support, too, from Tim Pigott-Smith and Barry Stanton as their damaged descendants.

Production Information

Theatre Royal, Bath, July 4-28

Simon Gray
Peter Hall
The Peter Hall Company
Cast includes
Michael Pennington, Loo Brealey, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tony Haygarth, Barry Stanton
Running Time
1hr 30mins

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