Bleak House.Anderson’s English. Written by Sebastian Barry. Directed Max Stafford Clark. Nuffield Theatre Southampton. 20 February 2010.

Charles Dickens- or Charles Chickens as he is affectionately known in my house- created huge, monumental, scathing novels with wending and winding intricacies that can make your head spin when trying to explain them. For so many of the panoply of people who emerge from the pages of his books there is often sympathy, a non-judgmental stance that is quite surprising for a Victorian novelist (unless of course the character was American; sorry about that over there in D.C.)
Of course much of Dickens’s private life doesn’t bear up under close scrutiny and it is perhaps difficult to square the master of nineteenth century social novelists with the hypocritical oftentimes quietly tyrannical man of the home.

It is this juxtaposition which forms the beating heart of Sebastian Barry’s Anderson's English. Set largely in flashback, with the reminiscences of Hans Christian Anderson of his visit to stay with Dickens (or ‘dear Dickens’ as he is often called- Anderson’s English being none too secure for the flashback scenes) after the news of Charles’s demise. The audience are aware throughout of the increasing tensions in the Dickens’s household, occasionally slipping out but missed by Anderson.

Niamh Cusack as Dickens's long-suffering wife was a picture of highly-strung tension: smiling, but often with the occasionally too long smile, the too long pause, the twitch, the flicker. It is not until more than half way through the play that the mask she wears starts to crack. Falling to pieces her sister, who follows Dickens like a loyal spaniel and who runs the house over her sister, takes control completely. When Mrs Dickens is banished and forbidden access to her children, Cusack gave a credible depiction of grief that was tender and pitiable

Dickens was played confidently by David Rintoul, with the occasional flash of rage or annoyance, cut with head holding self pity. It was difficult to feel sorry for him.

Perhaps most impressive was Lisa Kerr as the maid, got ‘into trouble’ by young Master Dickens. Refusing to give up the child she relocated to Canada we learnt at the end of the story, child and all living a full and happy life. The one success out of the sadness of the Dickens’s household.

This was a strong and tender production, giving some interesting insights into the private life of a public figure.


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