When the box office assistant tells you that the show you’ve been sent to review is actually a rehearsed reading, I hope I’m not the only theatre fanboy to hope they are about to witness an early stage on the path to a soon-to-be-all-time-classic’s interstellar rise to five-star fame. With music, lyrics and book by Dean Johnson, who staged a musical of Wilfred Owen’s poetry here last year, New Dickensian had me buckled into my positive place.
Johnson’s narrative tells us the last days of Ethan Shrewd, and follows the plot of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (which the gentleman behind me audibly worked out after the second ghost). The idea: to demonstrate how we and our world have regressed back to the dark days of Dickensian London, dastardly bankers and all. Shrewd, a successful stockbroker, is visited by the ghost of his old boss one night after a boozy date with a female acquaintance who works in the Department of Welfare (whom, we are told, has several disabled people locked up at home whose benefits she has successfully confiscated). As a result of this encounter he falls into a great depression and disappears. The spiral towards his demise is helped along by a conjunction of other events, more or less adapted from the Victorian original. For example, the revelation that Shrewd can’t take his wallet or credit card to the afterlife, and an unexpected email from his erstwhile childhood sweetheart telling him that he used to be quite a nice bloke but now is a bit of a rotter. Surely even Dickens wouldn’t stoop to such unprovoked malice.
As a comment on the world today it is half-baked. With a running time of just over an hour, there’s a lot to fit in and so details are sparse. What has Shrewd done to deserve this supernatural warning? He’s a banker. Isn’t that enough? Well, in a London apparently populated only by rough sleepers and his assistant Rob Cadgit, now a single parent of a self-harming teenage daughter, I guess so. Revelations include: look after your fellow man even if he sleeps on the street, money doesn’t make you happy, and did we tell you bankers are bad? It doesn’t matter why.
Even as a showcase for creative merits, New Dickensian falls short. Jane Hamlet (Isabella), Nicholas Ball (Narrator) and Leah Taaffe (Emily Cadgit) have to work with snippets of badly written narrative between a number of 90-second songs sung by Johnson and Taaffee. Their lyrics include: “It’s written on her arm / self-harm” and “His profile picture never changes / He’s the Dorian Gray of Facebook”.
As a rehearsed reading, it’s difficult to see where Johnson can take the production for its next step. New Dickensian’s structure might suit a residency at the local open mic night, but not a night at the theatre or a rehearsed reading. The crossover narrative isn’t insightful and falls well short of the promised social satire, but reminds us, in case you’ve forgotten since the near decade since 2008’s credit crunch, that bankers are bad.
New Dickensian played at the Jermyn Street Theatre on 17 January. For more information, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.