As always at Christmas, theres a lot of Dickens around. An equally heart-breaking and heart-warming alternative to the much better-known A Christmas Carol is Simon Callows splendid performance of two Dickens monodramas, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, adapted and directed by Patrick Garland.
Dickens adapted these two stories for the stage and performed them himself, alongside excerpts from his novels, in his famous reading tours, which Callow re-created in his protean one-man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens in 2000.
In Dickens own words, both are examples of streaky bacon, mixing the dark with the light, displaying characteristic qualities of social satire, sentimentality, grotesque imagination, melodrama and linguistic dexterity.
The first piece, Mr Chops, is the slighter of the two. The bewhiskered circus owner Toby Magsman tells the sad tale of the dwarf Mr Chops, whose beloved fat woman of Norfolk has already run off with a Red Indian. Having won the lottery he enters into society but feels horribly out of place as he is ruthlessly exploited and ridiculed.
There is a strong sense of pathos in this savage satire on the snobbery and materialism of high society, which is contrasted with the humble, hard-working camaraderie of the travelling circus people. However, the story does not quite catch fire because it is narrated at one remove by the compassionate Magsman rather than directly by the hapless Mr Chops himself.
Dr Marigold is more involving. Here the eponymous, curly-wigged cheapjack, or travelling salesman cum quack doctor, describes how he rescues a deaf and dumb girl from a freak show to make up for the death of his own daughter, who was abused by his wife, but later selflessly lets her go to fulfil her own life.
Marigold is an engaging, dynamic figure, sometimes directly addressing individual members of the audience as potential customers: Ill tell you what Ill do for you Despite the tragedies that beset him, he never loses his optimistic outlook and his kindness is eventually rewarded in this redemptive story full of unabashed emotion.
In the neologism of the Victorian actor Charles Mathews whom Dickens so admired, these two pieces are monopolylogues, mini-dramas enacted by one person using a range of voices to represent various characters and no one does this better today than the versatile Callow.
Aided by Christopher Woods set of cobwebbed bric–brac and faded posters and Chahine Yavroyans mood-changing lighting, Callow gives a highly physical yet laudably understated performance, which relishes Dickens verbal virtuosity. He succeeds in animating a quirky way of life on the road peopled by wonderful eccentrics, as portrayed by two people whose livelihoods depend on beguiling paying audiences which Callow does himself exceedingly well.