Dickens Unplugged @ Assembly @ George Street, Edinburgh

The appearance of new material from Adam Long in the Fringe programme will have excited a select, but certainly not insignificant group of people: fans of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, such as myself. This is because, while not strictly a founding member, Long is widely recognised as a major factor in the company’s success, as a writer, actor and director.

During their long run at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly, the RSC divided theatre-goers – some praising their mix of high and low comedy, others seeing them as just a bit too silly – and this ambivalence was summed up when they were described as ‘immovable’ in a “state of the West End” think-piece a few years back. Eventually, however, they were moved – but another product of Long’s wit and talent has come to the stage after just a few years.

I suspect it is perhaps better to go into this brand new show with no preconceptions, however, as Dickens Unplugged may leave die-hard fans of the more knockabout elements of the RSC’s work somewhat disappointed: the actors are here showing off their musical comedy skills, rather than their clowning abilities. Adam Long, it seems, has grown up.

But the musical comedy, it has to be said, is excellently conceived and delivered. This is far from a ‘Complete Works’ show, concentrating instead on just a few texts, and setting them to the most wonderful score. Dickens is, of course, a quintessentially British – or more properly, I suppose, English – author, but Long has kept to his tradition of mixing British and US culture by telling those stories using quintessentially American music.

Rhythm and blues, Broadway show tunes, American songbook, and country and western all make an appearance, and all – amazingly – seem to work perfectly. The scope for emotion in these styles is apparently suited to the melodramatic moments of Dickens’ work, and the sparkling tunes and always witty lyrics are well served by a hugely musically talented cast.

The steady stream of real belly laughs, and quickfire visual gags are less in evidence here than in, say, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), but Long has maintained, and in fact enhanced, one of the elements of that show which made it so interesting – an ultimate respect for the source texts. The more convoluted plots and coincidences of Dickens’ novels are mocked, but Dickens himself appears on stage to explain his calling – to show London life in its entirety, and to try and instigate change for the most needy.

This combination of a real engagement with the stories and truly wonderful songs means that this certainly has the potential to become an excellent full-length show – just as long as, from a personal viewpoint, jokes involving silly props and cross-dressing aren’t entirely sacrificed in the name of maturity.

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