Theatre Review: Dickens Abridged - Arts Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭

Dickens Abridged
Arts Theatre, London

Friday 6th December 2013: Ever since Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, his name has been indelibly linked with the festive season. His now infamous short story was the Victorian equivalent of The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’: a festive classic that could be returned to year upon year to instantly evoke the Christmas spirit. Indeed, in his own time, Dickens was so closely associated with this part of the year that upon his death in 1870, a costermonger’s young daughter memorably exclaimed ‘Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?’

If you’re looking to have your seasonal dose of Dickens, then, look no further than Adam Long’s production of Dickens Abridged, currently playing at the Arts Theatre in the West End. In the manner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a group of five actors (armed with guitars, wigs, and maracas) take us on a whistle-stop musical tour of Dickens’s major works, with added titbits on the great man’s life and legacy. It’s a neat trick for covering a lot of ground, whilst also hammering home the overarching themes that recurred in many of Dickens’s novels, from the overabundance of orphans and incomplete families to the grinding daily realities of poverty and debt. 

The cast of Dickens Abridged
Photo by Hydar Dewachi
Such a summary sounds like the show could be rather bleak, but on the contrary: it brims with joy, life, and laughter, revelling in the many comic moments of the writing without ever being disrespectful towards its source material. Indeed, like many seasoned Dickensians, the show takes just as much pleasure in gleefully pointing out the novels’ flaws as it does in celebrating their strengths, from the brilliant 30-second-limerick rendering of Little Dorrit, to the truly hilarious insight into the violent psyche of famously diffident Agnes (of David Copperfield). 

The scenes from Dickens’s personal life were just as skilfully handled, from his final day at Warren’s Blacking Factory (amusingly figured as an excruciating break-up scene between Dickens and Warren) to the meeting between his wife, Catherine, and mistress, Ellen Ternan, at his graveside (Catherine brilliantly, and to my mind, rather appropriately, punctured the tension with ‘God, he was weird’).

The performers are wonderfully energetic as they rapidly switch between costumes and instruments, carrying the audience along in their obvious enjoyment of the show. I was particularly pleased to see Damian Humbley again, having loved his performance in Merrily We Roll Along earlier on this year. He brings a calm, authoritative dignity to Dickens despite having one eyebrow firmly raised throughout: I found the moment when he kept boyishly scurrying out of bed despite his illness to finish his writing particularly hilarious, and also strangely moving. Special mention should go to Gerard Carey as well, whose miniaturised versions of the longer and more complicated novels probably deserves a show in itself!

You’d be hard-pressed then to find a production as jaunty and joyous this festive season. It’s hilarious and heart-warming, brilliantly written and performed, and can be thoroughly enjoyed no matter what your level of Dickensian knowledge is. And, if you need a final reason to go: Tiny Tim. Electric guitar solo.

God bless us, every one!

Four stars ✭✭✭✭



THE ARTS THEATRE, 6-7 Great Newport Street, WC2H 7JB

Performance Schedule: 

Tuesday – Saturday at 8.00pm and Sunday at 6.00pm (Except Tuesday 3 and Sunday 8 December)

Matinees - Thursdays and Saturdays at 4.00pm (Except Thursday 28 and Saturday 30 November)

Christmas Matinees Tue 24, Fri 27, Tue 31 December and Fri 3 January at 4.00pm