“Fistulas, fistulas, always the fistulas”
Previously seen in an earlier incarnation as Dickens Unplugged, Dickens Abridged is a shorter, sharper “high-speed comic sprint through Dickens’ greatest hits.” If the format seems a little familiar, then it should come as no surprise that writer and director Adam Long is one of the founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and it is the same frenetic energy and absurd humour that he brings to this 90 minute show which sweeps through the life and works of this literary genius.
The show works best when its 5-strong company are freewheeling merrily through its rapid-fire comedy. Purists may blanch but to hear the plots of Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop encapsulated in four-line ditties, likewise Little Dorrit in a musical limerick and Great Expectations covered in a quick-change routine is breathlessly hilarious. Long’s undoubted skill of creating a witty précis of even the most convoluted of plots is adroitly observed and with this talented cast of actor-musicians on fine form, it’s a winning combination.
Some novels merit a slightly extended bit – Oliver Twist (unsurprisingly) becomes a vaudevillian musical revue, A Tale of Two Cities makes decapitation as funny as it has ever been and a madcap rush through A Christmas Carol near the show’s end is well done. These are all interspersed with biographical scenes from key moments in Dickens’ life, trying to connect the dots between real life experience and fictional creation and though some of these are amusing, they get repetitive and lack some of the comic invention and narrative propulsion.
But it is an undoubted treat with its unfettered bonhomie and wide-ranging musical influences (from Wicked to O Brother Where Art Thou). Gerard Carey probably steals the show on points – his Agnes Wickfield is brilliant and improvising out of necessity as Tiny Tim, he nearly stole the show. But all five of the cast are excellent – Damian Humbley’s Dickens is amusing, Kit Orton’s fiddle-playing a delight, Jon Robyns constantly charismatic and Matthew Hendrickson a wonderfully warm stage presence. If panto’s not your thing, then this Dickensian delight just might be.