When David Edgar’s gargantuan adaptation of Dickens’ “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” was first seen at London’s Aldwych in 1980, it ran counter to the individualistic ethos of the times. Margaret Thatcher had come into power on a right-wing ticket, and, soon, Ronald Reagan would be in the White House. In its scale, philosophy and narrative scope, the play brought the new orthodoxy into question. Now, in a major revival by Chichester Festival Theater en route to Gotham and Toronto, Edgar’s work is as politically prophetic as it is aesthetically stuck in its time. With 27 actors, around 100 characters and more than six hours on stage, it is technically impressive and exhausting to watch.
As an exercise in storytelling, the production, jointly directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, is hard to fault. Simon Higlett’s set is suggestive of the dilapidated house fronts of Victorian London, but its chief feature is the open space over which the large cast can swarm, capturing the chaos of crowded streets one moment and the civility of a gentleman’s drawing room the next.
This is actors’ theater, not only in the focus on ensemble playing (rarely are there fewer than a dozen performers on stage), but also in the way that it’s the actors — more than props or fancy scene changes — who create a sense of place.
This allows for tremendous fluidity through the story, as Daniel Weyman’s Nicholas Nickleby — fresh-faced, uncomplicated and virtuous — leaves his impoverished family to begin his adventures. Using a blend of third-person narration and straight drama, the directors skip from scene to scene with great clarity and something approaching a novelist’s ease.
Generally they capture the flavor of Dickens’ larger-than-life caricatures without getting indulgent, although there are irritating moments when everyone on stage is twitching, limping or bent double like a Dickensian freak show. The parody of a hammy “Romeo and Juliet” does cross over into self-indulgence, however, and makes for a drawn out and unsatisfying conclusion to Part I.
But the central performances have poise and authority, notably David Yelland as an austere Ralph Nickleby, Zoe Waites as a succession of would-be lovers for Nicholas, and David Dawson who brings sharply timed physical precision to the damaged Smike.
When Trevor Nunn first directed the adaptation for the RSC, the ensemble staging techniques might have seemed innovative. Today, they are less startling and, even if it is two hours shorter than the original, there’s something in the scale of the production that recalls the overblown values of the 1980s.
On a number of occasions, the actors burst into communal song as if, from beneath the earnest drama, a bombastic musical were trying to get out. You might be awestruck, but less likely to be moved.
In terms of the politics, more than one storyline is propelled by the corrupting power of money, a theme made only more pertinent by the stock market crashes and financial scandals of recent years. It’s debatable whether it needs two nights to express this idea, however, especially as Dickens provides more narrative twists and turns than he does political fuel to drive them. It leaves you with a sense of a company going to more effort than the material merits.