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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

Adapted by Simon Webb from Charles Dickens
United Players
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
Mar. 27-April 20
$16-$20 or 604-224-8007 ext. 2

The Old Curiosity Shop was a sensation when first published in 1841 and it remains one of Charles Dickens’ most popular novels. Sporting a heartbreaking adolescent heroine and kick-ass little slum boy hero, a marvelously villainous villain, an array of colourful secondary characters, and an ending that combines tear-jerking sentiment and gratuitous violence in equal measure, it would seem like a can’t-miss candidate for dramatic adaptation.

Then why haven’t we seen a blockbuster movie or, until now, heard of a recent theatrical version of The Old Curiosity Shop?

Once upon a time, plays based on Dickens’ novels were everywhere in English-language theatres. But other than A Christmas Carol, Dickens on the contemporary stage is a rarity. Dickensian melodrama can seem very old-fashioned, and the profusion of characters and settings in his novels makes them awfully expensive for today’s professional theatres. The success of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s sprawling eight-hour Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980s might have been the exception that proves the rule.

Enter Vancouver actor-turned-playwright Simon Webb, whose adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop–with 17 performers and a musician–is getting its premiere from semi-professional United Players. Directed by Sarah Rodgers, who consistently produces the best work in the city with large casts of young actors, the script and production struggle to find the story’s dramatic rhythms and focus. But there are still good reasons to see this show–especially for one of the sharpest, funniest, nastiest performances of the season.

At the centre of the plot, set in London in 1825, are a Grandfather (Douglas Abel) and his lovely, saintly 14-year-old granddaughter, Nell (Olivia Huntsman). Nell’s no-goodnik brother Fred (Zac Scott), convinced that rich old grandpa is likely to leave all his fortune–including the shop of the title–to Nell, persuades his pal Dick Swiveller (Graeme Thompson) to court Nell and so access the coming inheritance.

But there won’t be any inheritance. Unbeknownst to Fred, Grandfather is actually poor. In fact he’s bankrupt, having borrowed money from diabolical Daniel Quilp (Kazz Leskard) only–gasp!–to gamble it away in an obsessive attempt to build a legacy for Nell. After Quilp seizes the shop and makes a spine-chillingly pedophilic move on Nell, Grandpa makes his own midnight move, fleeing with Nell to the countryside where they fall in with some traveling show people, including Punch and Judy puppeteers (Ryan McDonald and Jordan Navratil) and waxworks proprietress Mrs. Jarley (Louise Phillips).

Meanwhile, a Mysterious Stranger (Paul Kloegman) shows up, and with the help of Kit (Toby Verchere), a feisty young neighbour boy, goes looking for Grandfather and Nell. But so does the evil Quilp, who also recruits weak-kneed lawyer Sampson Brass (Paul Griggs) and his sister Sally (Kirsty Provan) to frame Kit for a theft he didn’t commit.

Luckily, Dick Swiveller turns out to be a good guy. Assisted by a curious, eavesdropping servant girl he nicknames Marchioness (Rose Lennox), Dick swivels out the truth about Quilp, Kit and the Brasses. The evildoers eventually get just what they deserve, while the good–well, timing is everything in melodrama. Mysterious Stranger and Kit find Grandfather and Nell but, alas … mayhaps too late?

Rodgers’ production looks great on Carolyn Rapanos’ muted multi-level set, the colours bumped up by Catherine E. Carr’s period costumes. Regular injections of energy are provided by Shelley Stewart Hunt’s choreography along with Pat Unruh’s first-rate musical accompaniment on cello, fiddle and keyboards.

But see this show for Kazz Leskard’s venomously riveting performance as Quilp. From the first scene in which he tramples on his hapless wife, replacing her tea with his whiskey and forcing it down her throat just for the hell of it, this guy owns the stage. Quilp is one of Dickens’ most fantastic creations, seemingly acting out of what Coleridge, describing Shakespeare’s Iago, called “motiveless malignancy.” He just likes baiting, bullying and hurting people for no reason other than pure sadistic pleasure. Leskard is scary-funny and utterly weird, setting the bar very high for the rest of the cast.

Fortunately, quite a few of the other actors, old and young, are able to keep up. Thompson’s Dick Swiveller has a similar kind of demonic energy as Leskard’s Quilp, making a seamless, entertaining transition from cad to hero. Little Toby Verchere is a dynamic Kit, and veteran Louise Phillips brings great English charm to Mrs. Jarley. As the bad Brasses, Griggs and Provan start slowly but grow nicely into their characters.

The proliferation of characters, settings, plotlines and scenes challenges the audience to maintain an emotional connection with the central story, especially given that Grandfather and Nell are so dialed down in this production, perhaps to avoid the excesses of Dickensian melodrama.

Oscar Wilde reputedly said of Nell’s demise that a reader would have to have a heart of stone not to dissolve into tears … of laughter. You won’t laugh at the ending here, but there won’t be riots at Jericho Arts Centre either, as there were in 1841 among the crowds awaiting the last installment of the novel that would reveal little Nell’s fate.

Jerry Wasserman