David Copperfield is one of the best-loved of Charles Dickens’ novels and is believed to be at least a semi-autobiographical narration of his life. He said that Copperfield was always his “favourite child”. Dickens’ family were extremely poor; he was forced as a young boy to work in a factory in conditions that informed his later efforts to achieve social reform by highlighting the cruel lives of London’s poorest. Dickens ensured that his writings could reach the general public by publishing in magazines, so that the poorer in society could read them when they could not afford books. Simon Reade’s innovative adaptation re-imagines the story as a Victorian Music Hall performance, a popular form of theatre in the 19th century, which reflects the period of Dickens’ and Copperfield’s life.
Copperfield’s early life is depicted as harsh, his father gone, his mother remarrying a cruel man who beat him, being sent away to school, working for a pittance. All the while, Copperfield reads, learns, and never loses his humanity or desire to help others. He also falls in love with every young lady who crosses his path. Often they fall in love with him too, but sometimes they are lured away by other more exciting, but not entirely trustworthy, suitors. Eventually Copperfield settles down with the love of his life, becoming a father and a writer, much as Dickens did. The other characters too navigate their way through life, learning hard lessons about love, trust and deceit along the way.
This is a totally over-the-top, bonkers production, giving out enough energy to light up Victorian London. Three supremely talented actors play all the characters with much gender-bending and hilarity, sometimes switching roles with just a different hat or scarf. Katy Owen and James Peake between them play over thirty parts, from the Trotwoods and the Micawbers to Peggotty and Uriah Heep and are clearly having a ball, a feeling that flows out over the audience. Their ability to play a different character at (literally) the drop of a hat is impressive, each character remaining perfectly defined. Christopher Buckley is a sweet and stalwart Copperfield, narrating the story and carrying on through whatever life throws at him. There are a few jolly songs – a couple with lyrics that crash through the fourth wall, which is very much in the musical hall tradition. Tom Knowles provides excellent on-stage piano accompaniment, adding accents to the action, the music effectively a fourth performer.
Beth Colley’s set is barely there, with a backdrop of clouds and a huge sun. On stage there are just a few cabin trunks and suitcases which the cast reposition to be tables, chairs, a bath, a carriage and even a coffin. Emily Raymond choreographs the wild action with precision, making it look effortless among the mayhem.
Charles Dickens loved the theatre and was himself a performer. He loved David Copperfield – and he would have loved this show.
David Copperfield is at the Riverside Studios until 25 February. Tickets are on sale from https://riversidestudios.co.uk/see-and-do/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 9th February 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★