At a time when every passing month yields another blog post bemoaning the number and diversity of roles for women in the theatre, this revival of Miriam Margolyes and Sonia Fraser’s 1989 one-woman show, performed by Margolyes, makes for a strident rebuttal. Here are 23 such roles, taken from the life and works of Charles Dickens and played out in quick succession over the course of the evening, each as different from the last as it doubtless will be from the next.
As everyone from Martin Chuzzlewit’s morbidly droll nurse Mrs. Gamp and Great Expectations‘s fiercely tragic Miss Havisham through to Dickens’s own mother, wife and sisters-in-law, Margolyes glitters with bravura versatility, but she shines just as brightly as herself. She hardly needs to acknowledge her “relish in [Dickens’s] humour, variety and vitality” – it is clear for all to see, and works to reconcile the performance aspect of the evening with a lecture-like discussion of Dickens’s relationship with women, and the extent to which his personal relationships with them informed his writings.
These links never feel forced, are often humorous and are always informative; Dickens’ tendency to write naïve and virtuous ingénues forever aged 17 is wittily lampooned, but comes to bear new significance in light of the personal context in which these characters were created. This particular moment is also the only time at which the presence of Benjamin Lee on piano feels particularly warranted; his jaunty underscoring of the extended joke adds to the segment’s witticism. Elsewhere, Michal Haslam’s score feels a little redundant; a wisp of a festive theme cropping up at a mention of Christmas is little more than a token gesture to incorporate music, whilst a piece in period style played before Margolyes’s entrance sets completely the wrong tone for a piece which – though affable – is also a genuine intellectual interrogation of arguably the greatest of the Victorian novelists.
That said, it is the novels and not the novelist himself who provide the most memorable moments of all, two characters from Little Dorrit in particular. First comes Flora Finching: broad, giggling, short of breath and based on Dickens’ own first love, whom he met with 19years after she spurned him to find her far less beguiling than she had been. Margolyes makes her essentially kindly, but overbearing and preposterous – there is no doubt that this is a cruel caricature, drawn in revenge against a woman whom Dickens could not forgive for having changed so irrevocably. Secondly, and most movingly, is Miss Wade, a character most discussed nowadays in relation to her association with a strong lesbian subtext. In a speech in which she details her adolescent infatuation with a female friend, Margolyes allows her audience to forget that Dickens was in the first instance a man and, in the second, working more than 150 years ago.
One gets the sense that Margolyes and Fraser are far too clever to make an explicit, wheedling argument for Dickens’s contemporary relevance, but that is, in the end, what we get. As such, though it’s hardly pushing the boundaries of theatre practice, it is an evening worth attending for all ages; if you haven’t read any of the novels from which the work’s characters are derived, you’ll leave wondering why the Dickens not.
Dickens’s Women is currently on a UK and international tour. More details can be found at: www.dickenswomen.com/performances-tickets