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Dombey and Son – The Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Book: Charles Dickens

Music: Colin Sell

Director: Sue Colverd

Reviewer: Holly Spanner


“What is money after all?”

Charles Dicken’s Dombey and Son was originally published as a series of monthly parts from 1846 to 1848, which manages to fill around 600 pages of the original novel.

Marking the 200th anniversary of the authors birth, Stroud based Red Dog Theatre Company have put together this reimagining of the Charles Dickens book. Wealthy shipping company owner Mr Dombey is arrogant and blind to all save money and power. Following the death of his first wife during childbirth and his only son Paul Dombey six years later, his greed and want to purchase leads him into the path of his second wife, the widowed Edith Granger. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she remains with him only for her love of his neglected, but devoted daughter Florence Dombey. Enraged and bitter that Florence has earned a greater love from his wife than he; Dombey strikes Florence. Florence flees, while Dombey spirals into bankruptcy and despair with all thoughts turned on his daughter.

The cast of six play between them eighteen characters, with Ian Gain as the formidable and ruthless Mr Dombey. Dressed in black studded leather, tattooed and ruthless he exudes stage presence and authority. Kate Abraham’s change between wet nurse Polly Toodles and Edith Granger is quite extraordinary. The transformation from simple, caring and motherly to haughty and superior is ironically satisfying as both characters are bound by a love for Florence. Florence, although excellently portrayed by Carla Freeman and immensely likeable, as a character lacks depth and dimension and it is a pity to see this emphasised in the play.

In the first act, puppets are used to represent the children in the story. Paul Dombey himself evolves from a bundle of clothes, held in the arms of the actors, to an elegantly simple set of child’s clothes hanging from a coat hanger with a looped piece of wire for a head. Paul is then walked around the stage by the actors who keep the coat hanger just above knee level. Joe Carey in particular is excellent in manipulating the puppet, complete with breathing motions and creating those little idiosyncrasies that children have. Mrs Toodle’s children are represented by four papier mache heads suspended from a modest cross frame, with strips of fabric hanging from the heads to form the bodies. Although simple, it works well in the context of this particular adaptation.

The production features music by Colin Sell, in the form of singing and a number of instruments played intermittently by the cast away from the central performing area. Meanwhile, rhythmic sounds of the ocean and other background noises are created from a corner of the theatre, obscured from view by a folding room divider.

Staged in-the-round, the production uses a number of ladders. The largest of the ladders forms a doorway to the stage, under which the cast walk to enter a scene. In other instances, it is used to demonstrate a flight of stairs. The presence of ladders and numerous wooden crates often makes the stage feel confused and something akin to a workshop; however it does well to emphasise the dismal state of Mr Dombey’s house as described in the novel. Dickens often associates steam locomotives in his books with terror, discord and death, describing them as monsters. Red Dog very cleverly taps into this by utilising some effective visual aids to create an angry engine tearing through the mist.

The costumes in this production are ravishing and quite superb, if a little eccentric. One particular hat worn by the character Edith Granger has been fashioned from a lampshade, while a number of ladies white gloves are sewn together to create a shawl which then doubles as an apron, bringing a wonderfully vintage quality to the production.

With such a large novel to condense into a two hour production, Jude Emmet’s adaptation has done well with the resources available. However, the play is a little long and feels sluggish at times, with the first act being stronger than the second where it struggles to retain attention. Dombey and Son is a creative and imaginative interpretation of the classic (if lesser known) Charles Dickens novel with the biggest assets being the costumes and some imaginative staging of certain scenes.

Runs until 30th October 2012.

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