Something rather special happened at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn last night… and it’s going to happen again tonight at Bridgnorth’s Theatre on the Steps.
Hotbuckle Theatre Company have arrived in the county, fleet of foot and fully formed, from the south of England to take up residence in – of all places – a barn at Cruckmeole. And their Shropshire debut reached such heights of theatrical excellence, the quality of drama provision we starved Salopians can now expect has been significantly enhanced – literally overnight.
Let’s start with the script. David Copperfield is an extensive and at times rather rambling novel. Yet Adrian Preater has taken a finely honed scalpel to it without damaging Dickens in the slightest. It’s as if the whole novel is there – but in precisely pinpointed pocket form. Bearing in mind he only has a handful of actors to work with (and one of them is him) the skill with which he’s reconstructed and interwoven the jostling story lines is a master class in stage adaptation. I doubt I’ve ever seen a better small-scale Dickens anywhere. Clear. Concise. Charismatic.
His cast of five are superb, playing dozens of characters with barely seconds to change from one to the other. Andrew Chevalier plays David Copperfield throughout, from small boy to worldly-wise widower. He’s a most likeable performer with a pivotal stage presence and a gleaming, toothy grin. He looks uncannily like a younger version of Dickens’ own great, great grandson Gerald, who brought his one-man Copperfield to Theatre Severn in 2012 – and his reading of the part is just as good, without the benefit of the family DNA.
So that leaves 4 actors to play dozens of characters. Because of the inevitable composition of the cast Emily Lockwood, for example, finds herself playing at least four different young women in quick succession. A long costume rail runs across the back of the stage (there’s no time to go off) but it only takes a shawl or a scarf, a fresh inclination of her head and a towel folded into a barking lap dog to create a new, clear cut caricature every time. The theatrical challenge becomes a joy in itself to see.
The same goes for the others. Fiona Leaning is just lovely to watch as she switches from the motherly Mrs Peggotty (with a grin like a female Benny Hill) to the sinister Miss Murdstone in a twinkling. Adrian Preater’s Mr Micawber is so optimistically Tiggerish and his Mr Murdstone so unreasonably evil you have to check it’s the same man. And Peter Randall’s display of shape-shifting tendencies as he morphs from the conniving, slimy-green Uriah Heap to the earnest son-of-the-soil Ham is just really, really good. Ham’s drowning, by the way, is a shining example of how to create a convincing spectacle with no resources but a length of old rope.
Doubtless, Dickens’ characters are always a delight to work with, but somehow this wonderful ensemble truly inhabits them; hot-wiring the author’s intentions, channelling his creations as if they are real people in a reachable spirit world. We laughed with them. We despised them. They shared their simple joys and their pious despair. They brimmed with human kindness and lamentable frailties.
In short, as Mr Micawber might say, five deeply disciplined actors and the contents of a small van last night create a ‘complete’ piece of theatre before our very eyes and the audience loved it.
With the long established Shropshire company Pentabus purveying new writing in the county, it’s great to have an equally enterprising company taking such good care of the classics. Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ is next. You can catch David Copperfield at 7.30pm at Bridgnorth’s Theatre on the Steps tonight. If you’re anywhere near Bridgnorth, it’s well worth going to see.
Chris Eldon Lee