Dickens Abridged

Rating ***
Reviewed by Sarah Day

Arts Theatre
Running until 4th January 2014

A confession: I’m not a huge fan of Dickens. I am, however, a big fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and their hugely popular romp through Shakespeare’s complete works, which ran for nearly a decade on the West End stage.

It is perhaps unfair to directly compare the two shows, but the link between them is made apparent in the marketing – ‘Dickens Abridged’ is the brainchild of Adam Long, one of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s founding members, and relies on a similar ‘Americans take on classic British literature’ gag.

The concept is the same – reducing the complete works of Dickens down to a frantic, hilarious 90 minutes, with some biographical details thrown in too – but this is a very different show; more musical than stand up. With an assortment of instruments and props, some of literature’s most densely complicated plots are condensed to song and dance routines. The cast are fantastic – full of energy and comic timing. I don’t know a lot about the life of Dickens, but there was some fascinating intertwining of his own plot and those of his books, which made me want to find out more.

Save one deftly handled mishap with a guitar lead, everything was performed with perfect timing and precision, from the opening chords to the final chorus. Too much, almost. The thrill that came from watching The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) wasn’t just the scripting, but the interaction between audience and cast. There is no feeling here that anything could go wrong, or that an impossible feat is being attempted. They simply pick up their instruments, and take it away. Only during that guitar lead entanglement, which was presumably unplanned, and dealt with comically, is there a sense of the audience being involved in the performance. It got one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Perhaps it’s that the sources are novels, rather than plays, but something felt a little flat. It doesn’t help, either, that a couple of the stories are already popular musicals. It’s no easy feat to sing the stories of Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol with a feeling of originality.

By the end, I found myself wondering if the reduced format is necessary any more. Some of the most entertaining passages were in the accounts of Dicken’s own life – his constant, obsessive performing of the bludgeoning scene from Oliver Twist, and the relationship between the two women in his life. And the parallels between his life and that of his characters, which culminate in his feverish hallucination of several of his most famous creations.
In these moments there was some poignancy mixed in with the comedy, and a real sense of respect for the source material. Despite the frantic pace, I do feel like I know Dickens and his works a little better – surely one of the aims of the show. Still, it all felt a little too polished – entertaining, impressive, but somehow missing the magic.