Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Nicholas Nickleby is a phenomenal achievement, a total theatrical triumph and without doubt the best Drama School production I’ve ever seen. Over the 7 ½ hours of theatre divided into two parts, 26 graduating actors play over 150 roles in David Edgar’s adaptation of Charles Dicken’s serial novel, inhabiting a broad panoply of Victorian life.
In the close to 40 years since the play was first staged so famously by the RSC, it has become only more in tune with the times. Now with sprawling box sets on demand, its faithful novelistic approach to putting the whole of the page on stage seems more likely to win a loyal audience prepared to binge. Edgar understood the debt that Dicken’s felt to the theatre, and no book probably encapsulates that better than the one about the Nickleby family. The couple of hours we spend in the company of the Crummies theatrical troupe could be a full-length play in itself, culminating in a Romeo and Juliet that, with its knockabout farce and happy ending edits, challenges the Mechanicals Pyramus and Thisbe as the best play within a play to ever be written. As the piece also later whisks itself off to opera houses and gives Shakespearean epitaphs to characters, it does feel fitting that this is the Dickens that got the full theatrical marathon treatment.
Directors Jenny Stephens and Geoffrey Brumlik have marshalled something extraordinary to the stage, one that juggles both the intimate in fleeting dabs and the epic in broad brush strokes. From its thrilling first image, you know you are in safe hands, as the lights snap up and the whole graduating year group stand grouped on stage, ready to narrate the tale. It drew an admiring gasp from a group of school children in the upper circle, a reminder that the magic of theatre really does come from the simplest of resources.
As Nicholas and his sister Kate, Kel Matsana and Eva O’Hara prove that goodness doesn’t necessarily translate to dryness. Matsana is perfectly cast as Nick, his boyish tenor perfectly translating into a boy learning to become a man. Carrying a play which is fundamentally about him yet where he is responsible for few of the inciting incidences is challenging but Matsana brings so much charm to bear that he vaults its challenges. O’Hara is a striking presence, with her high cheekbones and flaming red hair, for great portions of the day she resembles her namesake Scarlett if she had taken to mourning dress. As she falls victim to a society that sees woman as collateral in men’s business doing’s, her Kate stands firm, taking each blow of life’s misfortunes but refusing to wilt.
As their Uncle Ralph, Will Fletcher gradually turns more skeletal as his quest for revenge against his nephew takes shape, a reverse of Scrooge where a miserly moneylender eventually turns further to the dark side. In Dickens’ tale of good vs evil, there are also some cracking villains from Lawrence Haynes as an original Bullingdon boy and Finnbar Hayman as a predatory old man.
In reality, you could pick out all and any of the ensemble for special praise, but over the course of the day it was difficult not to pick out the wonderful Anna-Kate Golding whose Fanny Squeers was a comic masterclass in pathos and vanity, Holly Carpenter whose range went from drunk stage managers to even more sozzled Glaswegian and Tom Briggs who delighted in multiple character etches.
Oscar Porter has probably the most challenging role of the evening, attempting to step into the role that made David Threlfall a star. His Smike is, perhaps wisely, less physically exerting than the one Threfall created, but he is perhaps just as touching as Nicholas’ loyal friend, rescued from the clutches of the Squeer’s brutal school and becoming a lifelong travel partner. Whether helping the ladies with their bags or trying to learn the apothecary speech, Porter is a sweet, winning presence.
Oscar Selfridge’s inventive, layered, set takes us from Yorkshire to London and onto Portsmouth while Alana Ashley has worked wonders in her costume design, from the flamboyance of the theatricals to the black pall of the mourning Nickleby’s. It’s only in Rob Casey’s lighting design that a tight time schedule really shows, as sometimes the actors struggle to find their light which makes some audible a little tricky. He does, however, create a stunning late shadow tableau, as three characters head out on pilgrimage, another beautiful moment in a day loaded with them.
There are days and shows in the life of a theatregoer that will last with them forever. This is one. As the final curtain came down at 11 pm, some nine and a half hours after the first light up, the actors took their final bow and fell, exhausted and elated into each other’s arms. You wanted to go up and join them. A fitting end to a brilliant year group. Bravo.