Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Charles Dickens on tour preparing to give a reading, railing against social injustice, fearing death, craving love and praise, enjoying the fame and adulation.
When the greatest writer of his generation was laid to rest in June 1870 he left behind instructions that no public subscription should be opened for the commission of a bronze statue. He also insisted that for brevity’s sake his coffin should be inscribed simply with the legend “Charles Dickens”. The author of such classics as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield wanted his writtings to form his lasting monument. He need not have been so effusive. The single word Dickens calls to every literary mind a stifling landscape hung with fog populated by the very best and very worst of humankind. But as Pip Utton in his part biopic, part tribute one man show is keen to point out Dickens’ unofficial motto was ever “make it brighter”.
Focusing on the final 12 years of the great writer’s life, Utton’s approach to Dickens illustrates his subject as among the most effective advocates for social progress and material improvement. Dickens was the man who best urged London’s development out of 18th century squalor by documenting it – the result in part being that grinding urban poverty shall forever (somewhat inaccurately) be described as Dickensian. Pip Utton is Charles Dickes is a hugely optimistic piece of theatre. It not only eulogizes a preeminent literary colossus but also provides a gentle reminder that this giant was also a much cherished humorist who urged the need for progress without resort to either fire or brimstone.
Utton represents Dickens during his twilight. Dickens spent his final twelve years on speaking tours which astonished capacity audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. His private life was spent in company with the beautiful young actress Ellen Ternan, his beloved muse and confident. This is a happy and contented Dickens with whom it is a pleasure to spend all too short a time.
Pip Utton is a Fringe heavyweight. This year alone he is appearing in no less than three separate solo bouts: Pip Utton is (not only) Dickens but he is also the Hunchback of Notre Dame and in between he treads the boards as Adolf. If any hint of tiredness was in evidence in Utton’s performance it was masterfully conquered and only added an energetic but also authentic portrait of the artist as an old man. The audience were beautifully engaged and charmed. The recitals of classic Dickens were superlative examples of what a master craftsman can do with material of a stellar standard.
The stage employed a combination of furniture from the lecture hall and private study giving a sense of intimacy but with a man adored by thousands. The only stumble was perhaps the use of canned applause in prelude to the recitals. Another sound cue might also have shifted the scene into the crowded public arenas which Dickens made his own.
If the rumors that Utton intends to return next year in the guise of Churchill prove accurate, then Fringe 2012 is in for treat. My hope is that Utton will explore Churchill the Nobel-prize winner for literature and render some of the great man’s histories and journalism with the same skill as he did for Dickens rather than focusing exclusively on the war leader. Though this actor is capable of some seriously heavy lifting, I would also suggest that Utton does not expend too much of his energy illuminating Churchill the amateur bricklayer.