I have often wondered what Dickens would have made of the musical, Oliver. There he was, writing a serious critique on London society and the workhouse, only to see it better known today as an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza.
Dickens Unplugged is the new show by Adam Long, a founder member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, whose Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) occupied the Criterion Theatre for near on a decade. Given this, I was not expecting reverence for the man and his writing.
The production opens with a number by ‘the biggest Charles Dickens tribute band in Santa Cruz’ who proceed to perform the whole of Oliver in two minutes, loosely basing their music on Lionel Bart’s own score, so Oliver sings “where is lunch?” and Nancy sings “As long as he beats me”. Then Dickens himself turns up and harangues the group for making light of his work.
This sets the tone for the evening. Yes, Dickens Unplugged is silly stuff, not to be taken too seriously, but Long brings in elements of Dickens the writer and lets the audience see how what happened in his own life influenced the characters in his novels.
When David Copperfield is performed, we actually see Mr Micawber challenging Dickens over why he had to put him through so much. To most questions, Dickens answers because that’s what people really went through, but for one he has to concede ‘because it was funny’. It reveals perfectly how Dickens’ favouring of the grotesque in his works derived from a need to temper hard-hitting representations of real life with marketability. In addition, Dickens’ marrying of David Copperfield to the ‘bimbo’, Dora Spenlow, is shown to represent his own first ‘disastrous’ marriage.
These moments of attempted insight are paired with moments of crude humour including a parody of A Christmas Carol in which Tiny Tim’s crutch doubles as an electric guitar.
The show is performed by a talented five-man cast who each play many parts with energy and a notable slickness. The music is hardly Sondheim (or even Lloyd Webber) but the simple folk melodies serve their purpose in bringing out the humorous lyrics. With the band consisting of guitars, a double bass and a man hitting his hand on a suitcase for rhythm, the music really is unplugged.
As with Long’s shows for the RSC, there are numerous references to other works, from Jerry Springer: The Opera to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. But this current production is not in the same league as Long’s Shakespeare show. Three of the novels are condensed into minute long songs; fine in the case of Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop, but a serious mistake in the case of Great Expectations. There is so much comedy potential, and the piece is so well known, that Long is missing a whole host of tricks by rushing through it so quickly.
Dickens Unplugged is no masterpiece, and if you’re looking for great comedy, biting parody, or first class music, it is probably one to miss. But if, on the other hand, you are content to have a fun evening that scores not too badly on all of these criteria, then you could certainly do worse.