Writer: Charles Dickens
Adapter: Simon Reade
Songs: Chris Larner
Director: Emily Raymond
David Copperfield takes Dickens’s favourite work and turns it into a fun-filled night at the Music Hall.
As the play opens, Katy Owen and James Peake burst into the auditorium, bantering with the audience and fussing about. They find a trunk on the stage, open it and reveal the (remarkably compact) figure of Christopher Buckley. He is David Copperfield and he will narrate his life story with Owen and Peake taking the parts of the people who have shaped his life.
Copperfield has a lot to recount, growing up the apple of his mother’s eye before being cruelly thrown to the world by his stepfather. There he meets allies in his aunt, Betsey Trotwood and her friend Mr Dick, who is haunted by the ghost of Charles I. Copperfield secures a job and a marriage, whilst doing his best to support those he loves, meeting a colourful cast of characters on the way.
As Copperfield, Buckley does very well being the centre of the piece. He portrays innocence, teen awkwardness and mid-twenties struggle with ease. He’s also successful at narrating a juicy, dense bit of Dickens’ prose with the naturalness of everyday speech. Around Buckley’s calm presence, Owen and Peake manage to cavort around as some of Dickens’s most loveable characters, as well as one of his most detestable.
Peake, with an award for best pantomime dame, takes on David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood; Dora, his ditzy wife, the tender hearted Clara Peggoty and her brother, as well as the irrepressible optimist Mr Micawber. He manages to give each of his characters a deep warmth which especially suit the Peggotys and Micawber. This warmth works less well for Betsey Trotwood, who enters the novel as a formidable and intimidating woman before slowly revealing her heart of gold. Peake’s Betsey obviously has a heart of gold the minute he puts on her floral bonnet.
Owen has enormous fun bending her body and face into all manner of grotesque shapes and attitudes. Her Mr Dick is old and frail, her Steerforth has the swagger of a rockstar and her extraordinarily ‘umble Uriah Heep seems like he may cough up a hairball at any moment. The excess of her performance come very close to pulling the play apart at times but her energy plays off hilariously with the other two performances. If anything, she gets away with it through sheer fun and the largeness of the Dickens characters she is portraying.
While there are cuts in the text, writer, Simon Reade, constructs a coherent narrative and gives all the most well-known characters a chance to shine. It sometimes feels that Copperfield only spends a day at school, or in a rundown bottle factory but this is used for laughs when portraying his whirlwind romance, and later disillusionment, with his naive wife. While none of the fun is lost, some of the emotions are subdued by the necessary speed and the moments when the book turns dark are quickly passed through.
There is one scene though, which does play slowly and beautifully. Mr Dick places his intrusive thoughts on kites and he and Copperfield fly them in the air. This beauty is achieved by Chris Larner, whose kite song is a particular standout. Other songs introduce and dispatch the odious Uriah Heep, another praises Norfolk for its flatness and another two bless the audience as they leave for the interval and welcome them back on their return.
There’s also incidental music played live by Tom Knowles, who sits unblinkingly at his keyboard throughout the production. The songs and incidental music add to the ‘music hall’ feel of the production and complement the set, consisting of red curtains and a selection of trunks which serve as the furniture for every location. These elements create an intimate relationship with the audience and allow Owen and Peake to ad-lib a little and play with the audience.
David Copperfield is a warm hug of a play, presenting a range of loveable characters, telling a satisfying story and throwing in a number of great songs and funny jokes. It may file away some of the more pointed elements of Dickens’s novel but does so to ensure the audience has a good time.
Runs until 25 February 2023