Sunday, December 13, 2020

Smike's Happy Ending

Today, the Society for Theatre Research presented a Zoom reading of the the very first stage adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Playwright Edward Stirling adapted the piece in 1838 while Dickens was still writing the novel, which came out in monthly installments from March of 1838 to October of 1839. Because the novel had only been published through the end of chapter 26 when the play's audience first arrived at the Adelphi Theatre to see it, Stirling had to make up his own ending.

Vincent Crummles had just shown up in the installment next to the last one that had appeared at the play's opening, so he is noticeably absent from Stirling's adaptation. The play instead focuses on Smike, the poor child Nicholas befriends at Dotheboys Hall. This was a trouser role originally played by Mary Anne Keeley, who the following year achieved considerable fame in the title role of Jack Sheppard.

STR's production, which was directed by Sue Solomon, stuck with the tradition of casting a woman as Smike. Rebecca Farrell played the role movingly when she appeared at the beginning of the play's third scene, mourning a child who had recently died from neglect at the aptly named Dotheboys Hall. Mr. Squeers (Mark Fox) arrived with the school's newest teacher, the eponymous hero Nicholas Nickleby, played by Hugh-Guy Lorriman.

The play, like the novel, alternates back and forth between Nicholas's adventures and the trials of his sister Kate back in London. Kate, played by Karen Moss in the STR reading, worked as a milliner in the establishment of Madame Mantalini (Sarah Andrews). The truly great role for the circle of characters around Kate is Madame Mantalini's husband, played hysterically today by Lachlan Wilson. It's clear in the novel that Kate's virtue is going to be threatened due to her precarious position as a young working woman in London without anyone to defend her. Stirling reasonably assumed the menace would come from Mr. Mantalini, who in the novel is mostly harmless, though.

A much larger change in plot comes at the end of the play, when Newman Noggs, played today by John Dobson, reveals that Smike is heir to a fortune, and all is resolved happily. For the most part, however, the adaptation keeps many of the highlights from the first half of the novel, including the hilarious antics of the Squeers family. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Sunita Dugal as Mrs. Squeers and Cheryl Jones as her daughter Fanny.

As is usually the case with Zoom, technical difficulties arose from time to time, but the cast dealt with them admirably. If we have to all stay inside due to COVID, at least organizations like STR are keeping theatre alive in some form.