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Trials and Tribulations of Mr Pickwick
Published on Tuesday, 14 May 2013

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4 stars

The Old Courtroom (venue website)
10 May, 5:30pm-6:50pm; 25-26 May, 4:30pm-5:50pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

It’s a shameful thing to acknowledge… but before I saw this show, all I knew about Mr Pickwick was that he was a kindly old gentleman, who was somehow involved with some papers. In his delightful one-man adaptation, Nigel Nevinson cherry-picks highlights from Dickens’ first novel – delivering a witty and warming monologue, which taught me a bit about the character and lifted my spirits at the same time.

Nevinson is a capable and instantly-likeable actor, ideally suited to the avuncular title role.  His Pickwick is spry and venturous, prone to comedic mishaps, and Nevinson displays a commendable mastery of his character’s circumlocutory style.  At first, I was a little confused by the multiple strands of plot, and at times the monologue barrelled on too quickly; Dickens’ humour occasionally needs a few moments to take on board.  Overall though, the elements chosen for this abridgement form a consistent and coherent story, centred on Pickwick’s brief internment in a debtor’s prison and the improbable sequence of events which brought him there.

Director John O’Connor has brought a clever dynamism to the opening scenes, finding a host of unexpected uses for a versatile collection of props.  Two trunks, pushed together, serve as a carriage; a duster on a hat-stand makes a remarkably credible horse.  Approaching the brief interval, the innovation dried up a little, and while Nevinson’s performance remained enjoyable I found it more safe than creative.  It was in the final scene, when Pickwick has his day in court, that the pace again lifted – with a procession of amusing new characters offering Nevinson a further opportunity to show off his skill.

So, as a freshly-minted Pickwickian, what lessons have I taken away?  Firstly, that some of Dickens’ early work is really rather funny; and secondly that so little in the world has changed.  With his sparing, knowing remarks directly to the audience, Nevinson highlights some startlingly contemporary plot points – it seems that ambulance-chasing lawyers aren’t exclusively a scourge of the modern age.  And on a personal note, the story of Pickwick’s escapade at the Great White Horse Inn was eerily reminiscent of that time I got lost in a Travelodge.

This is, in summary, a perfectly lovely play, accessible to those with no prior knowledge of Dickens and filled with period charm.  There’s a hint of a moral at the end – something about breaking free of what binds you, and enjoying all that life brings – but the real joy of this story lies in its telling.  Amidst a Fringe filled with heavy analyses of the state of the world today, Nevinson’s Mr Pickwick is a ray of old-fashioned sunlight.  There should be more shows like this one.

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