London Tide – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Ben Power, based on Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Director: Ian Rickson

Charles Dickens’s densely packed novel Our Mutual Friend, originally published in 19 monthly instalments, has the River Thames coursing through its ink-black heart.

Opening with Gaffer Hexam, who with his two young children ekes out a living by fishing dead bodies out of the river and ransacking their pockets before passing the corpses over to the police, Dickens portrays the Thames as morality’s sewer. In its flow, corruption flushes downstream from the Inns of Court and Chancery, into the slum neighbourhoods of Limehouse and Deptford.

It is this framing of the river that inspires Ben Power’s adaptation – streamlined, if you will excuse the pun, to focus on two principal storylines from the original epic. There is the tale of Lizzie Hexam (Ami Tredrea), Gaffer’s daughter, who works to get her younger brother (Brandon Grace’s Charley) out of their family strife and into education, only to find he treats her as a drag on his new social status; a burden he says she can only lift by marrying his schoolmaster, the venal Bradley Headstone.

And then there is the ongoing saga of John Harmon, heir to one of the richest estates in London, whose body Gaffer pulls from the Thames. With his death, the money he had been due to inherit goes to an employee of the family firm, the jovial Noddy Boffin (Peter Wight). It also leaves young Bella Wilfer (who, in a typically oddball Dickensian plot line, had been due to marry Harmon despite the couple never having met) in limbo, assigned to the role of a widow grieving for a marriage that never was.

It is through Tredrea’s Lizzie and Bella Maclean as Bella that Power explores and reframes DIckens’s narrative, highlighting the same aspects of social class, the power of literacy to effect change, and the tidal fortunes of the city and its people. Power also brings to the fore the lot of women, so often regarded as the property of men, bargaining chips to be used in menfolk’s ongoing quest for betterment.

The recurring theme of the Thames materialises in Bunny Christie’s sparse set design by an overhead lighting rig whose bars undulate like the waves on the river. These characters may not physically be underwater, but the oppressiveness of that movement overhead is a powerful metaphor for a society that always feels like it is struggling for breath.

In the 21-strong ensemble cast, some of the lighter characters – Wight’s Boffin, and also Stephen Kennedy and Penny Layden as Bella’s impoverished but kind-hearted parents – stand out. Jake Wood’s Gaffer and Joe Armstrong as his villainous rival and former partner, Roger Riderhood, also make their marks with their occasional but impactful appearances.

Less effective are Tom Mothersdale’s John Rokesmith – the mutual friend of Dickens’s title – and, most especially, Scott Karim’s Headstone, the latter of whom descends into a pantomimic delivery that sits at odds with the rest of Ian Rickson’s otherwise solid direction.

A bigger impact is felt by PJ Harvey’s music. This is a play with songs rather than a musical, although the way the cast joins in with the onstage three-piece band sometimes strays into MT territory. The numbers hit the same emotional beats at which a musical would place them, and the way that Harvey and Power have collaborated on the songs certainly helps provide a firmer structure for the narrative. They may not reach the level of Sondheim’s No Place Like London – Sweeney Todd’s similar eulogy to, and condemnation of, the city of this era – but they contribute to the propulsive mood of the piece.

That propulsive quality helps the whole work, which runs over three hours, never feel overlong or anything other than wholeheartedly engaging. That’s mainly down to the women of the cast, especially supporting characters such as Ellie-May Sheridan’s Jenny Wren or Crystal Condie’s Miss Patterson, the Limehouse publican who keeps an eye out for her community.

But it’s Bella and Lizzie who command throughout. Tredrea, in particular, delivers a performance that makes one will for Lizzie to succeed, to dare to make a choice for herself instead of choosing to support others. Power’s vision of Dickensian London may be only the merest tad more feminist than the original, but it gives a young actor her chance to really shine.

But that’s the thing about London, whether in Dickens’s time or later. However venal and corrupting its influence can be, every so often, it gives us a chance to witness something you’d experience nowhere else. And like the city itself, London Tide is flawed and grimy – but full of compelling promise.

Continues until 22 June 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Compellingly grimy

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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