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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Low Down

Directed with Set Design by Steve Lewis, Set Build Keith Gilbert and LLT Workshop Team, Light and Sound Design Paul Carpenter, Kite Maker Lorna Casey, Special Effects Trevor Morgan.

Costumes Sarah Carpenter, Kirstine Bowen and LLT Wardrobe Team. Stage Manager Estelle Carpenter, ASMs Joanne Cull & Sarah Carpenter. Production Photography Phil Gazz & Keith Gilbert

Singing Coach Emily Longhurst

Artistic Director Shaun Hughes, Theatre Manager David Rankin, Box Office Manager Wendy Tidman

Till December 10th


Adaptations are a playground for lucrative deadly theatre. Dickens is an exception. His novels, all sharp-edged characters caricatures and incidents cry out for dramatic treatment: most notably because Dickens himself recast them as melodramas, or gave dramatised readings.

Though superb straight versions have been made of most Dickens, Gary Andrew’s David Copperfield returns us to this world of melodrama and Victorian music-making, kerned with Christmas carols for the season – but crucially out of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop: with director Steve Lewis’ consciously bare stage and moveable benches, a prosc-arch (with occasional bare depths revealed) summoning that Victorian melodrama, and a row of pegs to hang costumes on.

Special mention to Kirstine Bowen and the LLT team for a sartorial brilliance to offset the deliberately swept stage, brickwork stage right, and opposite white-washed interiors.

Just off-stage and visible throughout, Charlotte Oliver singing with Concertina and Guitar, and Joanna Burke on Fiddle, make a mesmerising duo with melancholic rustic edge and a rough joy when needed.  The whole cast sing and solo numbers sometimes stop the show. 22 of them include instrumental (Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ on violin), carols and geo-specific ‘Yarmouth Town’, ‘London Town’, or  ‘Over the Hills’ ’Haul Away’ and ‘If All the World Were Paper’. Punctuating the action with scene changes or a lapse of time, they help extend the production to exactly three hours with interval.

Ali Somers as narrator and grown David Copperfield is rarely off-stage, even darting off as Dr Chillip, cuffed by Sylvia Aston’s redoubtable Betsey Trottwood for declaring the newborn child of her niece-in-law Clara (Flo Price Dennis in her first role) is – a boy. Somers is fine unruffled and affecting as narrator of his former selves, engrossing when called into the action on his maturity.

Before then the nearly show-stealing of Davy (Freddy Greenwall in this performance, also Sergi Hardie Navarro) has landed. Alongside Little Emily (Clara Ross and Finnula Rowland on this occasion) we see some wonderfully fluid and natural child acting. Despite the warm support of nurse Clara Peggotty (Anna Crabtree wholly in character) Davy’s had to endure the loss of Price Dennis’ affectionate, fearful Clara, first to the first incarnations of Tim Telford as her new husband Edward Murdstone and his sister Jane (Constance Owen, with two memorable studies in hauteur); then to Clara’s death and Davy’s banishment. Telford’s almost a caricature of nastiness here, OTT, though he ascends the heaven of invention later on.

A tang enters with Yarmouth and an upside-down-boat-dwelling Ham Peggotty (Olly Cornish) and his uncle Dan (Peter Welby) ably suggesting the bedrock of affection provided by Peggotty herself, as Davy’s banished for his mother’s wedding then after his mother dies, for life. That’s interspersed with Dave Sutton’s lapidary speech as coach driver C P Barkis obliquely wooing Peggotty with messages encoded as “Barkis is willing”.

Above all there’s that intersection of sheer abjection and rescue: school. Telford, returning as Murdstone’s spiritual deputy: cane-crazy Mr Creakle, is able to slough the lowering of his first character and flex his physical acting. But his great moment’s to come. Here James Steerforth (Vito Taskin) makes his first appearance as cast-members mob young Davy whom he promptly rescues and befriends – despite the lively intervention of Iris Gilbert’s Mealy Potatoes, George Wells in his first role as Gregory, and Crystal Freestone’s Tipp.

Taskin has the brooding presence breaking into leery jollity with an edge betraying Steerforth’s bi-polar temperament. His physicality’s all burl and brisk appraisal, so when he haunches down into stillness – there’s little time for this to register – it’s a small shock. Taskin in his exuberance, sudden dark fits and tricksy entitlement conveys a touch of the pathos too. In this production we’re being conjured Dickens by lightning.

It’s at this point Wells elegantly substitutes as the ‘Trottwood’ phase of the three David Copperfields, taking over from Davy, expressing the right awkwardness of teen angst.

The most mesmerising point of the first half is Melissa Sharp’s Emily – and Ham’s and Steerforth’s love interest – who comes on to sing ‘The Parting Glass’ with a piercing melancholy that reminds us what true theatre is all about.

After the interval Chris Bowers’ Wilkins Micawber in ultramarine waistcoat – who’d appeared briefly earlier – strides forth with a voice and authority that would grace the stage anywhere. His verbal point and rasp hits the gallery, and Micawber’s mix of optimism, outrage and occasional crestfallen seconds (they never last) is all there. In accusatory mode Bowers rasps “Heep” (more Heep later) where one actor wondered whether a stage whisper might work best. Perhaps, but this is caricature and it brings the house down. Every other admonition – like the Twenty Pounds maxim – is edged with the glint of truth.

We’re driven in several directions: most dramatically in Micawber’s power relations with Tim Telford’s Uriah Heep, who exercises malign control over Peter Welby’s second role, faltering solicitor Mr Wickfield, and Heep’s attentions on Young Agnes (an assured India Tindley) and Price Dennis as her earnest, silently Copperfield-loving older self. Telford is magnificent, both physically in his hand-wringing cocked-head hair-plastered ‘umble’ role leering up with withheld menace and barely-concealed contempt which breaks out in a moment (does he get too close? Again, this is caricature). His bouncing off the superb Bowers is a highpoint; scenes between them blaze, neon-wired.

Crabtree returns as anxious Mrs Micawber, alternating with her Peggotty role  pathos as Sutton’s Barkis dies uttering “Barkis is willing”. Price Dennis hovers between disgust at Telford’s Heep, mute adoration of Somers’ grown Copperfield, and anxiety over Welby’s father Wickfield.

It’s here too that Aston – who’s returned in some glory for more of the second half, asserts her full stature. Not a haranguing Trottwood as some play a prelude to Miss Haversham (which she isn’t), she exerts more of Trottwood’s warmth if less forcefulness, especially strong in scenes with Somers and Mike Piller’s Mr Dick.

Piller never exaggerates kite-clutching Mr Dick in the way he’s been caricatured, but lets the eccentricities speak for themselves, appearing elsewhere rational with a cut-through grace in offering plain advice.

Welby though enjoys another role – Spenlow the solicitor to whom Copperfield’s articled and whose daughter the school-finished but life-innocent daughter Dora (Anna Lucas) inevitably catches the young clerk’s heart, straight away. The affection’s returned, and Lucas makes a winsome affecting but cloying character believable, with warmth, sexiness and a slight lisp that doesn’t fall into parody.

Welby enjoys Spenlow the splenetic before returning as Dan Peggotty in the climactic storm scene involving Cornish’s Ham, Taskin’s Steerforth, Somers’ Copperfield in the opening (as at  two other critical moments) of that prosc-arch backstage and much rope. It’s enhanced with Trevor Morgan’s special effects, and Paul Carpenter’s sound here comes into its own.

There’s still some dark scenes – with Owen returning in her second fire-and-ice role as Rosa Steerforth, attempting to destroy Sharp’s abandoned Emily (since they’re nearby, why the Dickens don’t Copperfield and Dan make themselves known and see her off?). And the end is rightly a bit of a tear-jerker. The audience melts.

Overall though, ensemble and individual acts – coming together warmly and with seasonal spirit at the end – are in the service of a company evoking something beyond theatrical retelling. It’s in this the special qualities reside. Though there’s some variable characterisation and ideally this work benefits from a touch more pace, it’s a tribute to the team that such ambition holds itself so well.

Mostly, its originality and musical execution is a paean to live theatre; soaring seasonal spirit, struck with tenderness, joy, sorrow, plangent affirmation.