Barnaby Rudge, adapted for the stage and directed by Eileen Warren Norris: Alchemy Theatre in association with the Kings Theatre, Portsmouth. 9-11 August 2012.
Tensions involving religious minorities are running high, demagoguing politicians are useless or worse than useless, and the urban poor rise up in violent riots, destroying the property of the innocent and burning themselves out as a seemingly uncaring government finally stamps out the remains of the upheaval.
That's the plot of Barnaby Rudge, not a comment on the recent unrest in Britain's cities. But Eileen Warren Norris's stage adaptation of the novel at Kings Theatre in Portsmouth was clearly aware of parallels between 2011's headlines and the riots of 1780. Actors were still costumed in clothes suggestive of the eighteenth century, the language was largely that of Dickens, and no characters sported sunglasses or received text messages on stage, as they sometimes do in other 'updated' classics. That would have been unnecessary. The play related the action to the present without having to belabor the point.
One factor that aided in this respect was the youthfulness of the cast. Simon Tappertit (played by Aaron Holdaway) and his fellow apprentice hooligans were age-appropriate. An advantage of drawing much of the cast from young people in the community was that the riot scenes seemed to burst with youthful enthusiasm. As teenagers settled old scores and helped themselves to loot, they put a mirror up to a part of human nature that hasn't changed much in the twenty-first century.
And it was the riot scenes that stood out most in this production. The lighting design by Phil Hanley and set devised by Michael Major helped to create a sense of anarchy and destruction during these moments. The ensemble, though clearly mixed in background and training, rose to the occasion and performed admirably when carrying out complex stage choreography portraying the devastation of London.
This adaptation was openly theatrical, including direct address to the audience, often accompanied by a wink and a nod. This was particularly useful in relating large chunks of exposition and in introducing who was playing which character. In the opening and closing, the performers were clearly acknowledged as actors putting on a show, but in the heart of the play, they were allowed to fully embody their characters and engage the audience in the story.
In keeping with this, Barnaby's raven, Grip, began as a very simple puppet that merely suggested a raven, but later became a more realistic raven puppet. Adam Brown played Barnaby and supplied the voice of Grip, choosing to perform both characters in a similar mad manner. Adhering to the theatrical nature of the production, he did not attempt any ventriloquism.
Roger Wallsgrove was delightfully pompous as Sir John Chester, and I rather regretted the duel scene being cut, as it would have been nice to see him get his just desserts. However, Norris was probably wise to wrap up an already lengthy production after the climactic riots had ended and Barnaby had been pardoned.
Other strong performances included that of Kevin Brewer, who played Hugh, and that of Henry Ostler, who was wonderfully funny as the hangman Dennis. The amateur cast sometimes lacked polish, but rarely enthusiasm, and it was a pleasure to see them bring one of the Inimitable's least performed novels to life on the stage.