“What a challenge! Squeezing Charles Dickens Nicholas Nickleby, a few thousand pages, filled with over 50 characters, in 2.5 hours on the Oxford Playhouse stage is no mean feat!
But Hedda Bird, Oxford Theater Guild adapter and director, did (read about it here https://www.oxinabox.co.uk/its-a-celebration-of-theatre-nicholas-nickleby-marks-otgs-triumphant-return-to- oxford- playhouse/), skilfully assisted by a costume designer, Alex Brinkman Young, which carefully color-coded the characters and their morality – blue for the innocent Nicklebys, red velvet for the villains, soft peach for the warm and generous characters. . . especially useful when actors were multitasking.
As always, Dickens’ story is full of villains, victims, and comic illusions. The shameful Squeers family – superficial, conceited, cruel and greedy – also carry the comic weight of the play – Richard Readshaw as owner of Dotheboys Hall Mr Squeers, Gavin Gaughan like Little Whackford and, especially good, Olivia Rogers like Fanny.
“The beating heart of the production is abandoned and abused child-man, Smike, brilliantly played by newcomer Jenny Griffiths”
At the center of these stories is Uncle Ralph Nickleby, played authoritatively by Simon Vailarch-manipulator and moneylender, sending unwanted family members to the infamous Squeers ‘educational establishment’ in Yorkshire (an excoriating portrait of cruelty and neglect that led to the closure of these ‘schools’ ” in real life).
The production is about love and money, how money fuels child abuse and sexual exploitation, extortion and suicide (so not much has changed there) and yet kindness and love (largely represented by Nicholas and Kate Nickleby) eventually triumph, you’ll be glad to know.
“Hats off to this top notch am-dram band for weathering the theatrical Covid drought”
However, the beating heart of the production is the abandoned and abused child-man, Smike, brilliantly played by the newcomer Jenny Griffiths.
Without Smike, the emotional punch of Dickens’ exuberant, harrowing, terrifying and utterly engaging original risks being lost in the adaptation’s fast-changing tableaus and compressed storylines.
If opening night was a bit squeaky, it’s Oxford Theater Guildis the Playhouse’s first production in nearly three years, so hats off to this top-notch am-dram band for weathering the theatrical Covid drought.
Nicholas Nickleby is at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday March 12. https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/nicholas-nickleby