Review – Dickens’ Women, Oxford Playhouse, 25th July 2012
Whenever I think of Miriam Margolyes, the first impression that comes to mind is of her triumphant performance as Lady Whiteadder in Blackadder II, the stentorian Puritan miseryguts who leads Lord Whiteadder a life of living hell and disapproves of any meal more extravagant than “God’s Good Turnip”; although if I remember rightly she ends up with her Puritan virtues largely around her ankles. We’ve never seen her live before, so I thought we should take the opportunity to see her one-woman show about Charles Dickens and the women in his life, both fictional and fact.
It’s a very entertaining way of spending an evening. Ms Margolyes strings together approximately 20 or so character vignettes, each infused with her own personal interpretation of the voice and bearing of the woman in question, but following an informative narrative of Dickens’ personal and career life. You come away at the end of the show feeling much more knowledgeable about the man – including some of his less respectable tendencies. It seems he always had an eye for 17 year old girls, especially in-laws. He treated his wife damn shoddily, and could fall in and out of love on a whim; but he also had a wicked sense of humour and his powers of observation were just as brilliant as you would imagine from his books.
I say it’s a “show”; it’s really more like a dramatically delivered lecture, but not in a pompous or stuffy way. It’s a well thought-out piece of classic Cambridge University author-centric literary criticism, which you could easily imagine being concocted over an afternoon sherry-cum-tutorial at Newnham (which just so happens to be Ms Margolyes’ Alma Mater). It’s rather polite and refined, erudite and improving; but still very funny and also very moving at times.
It’s definitely a pleasure to hear someone so in command of the English language, clarity and diction at the forefront – I’m talking about Ms Margolyes rather than Dickens. It’s also very enjoyable to watch her assume her characters – it takes her a good few seconds each time to get in the zone. Wearing an outfit best described as inspired by Indian Restaurant Flock, she’s a natural successor to Joyce Grenfell, with her ability to give precise and credible voice to both posh and common. For some of her older, more cantankerous characters she lolls her tongue around her mouth in a manner that brought to mind Margaret Rutherford. She started the second half with her portrayal of Mr Bumble and the Widow Corney from Oliver Twist and it was comic genius. I also really enjoyed her portrayals of Martin Chuzzlewit’s Mrs Gamp, Flora Finching from Little Dorrit, and Miss Flite from Bleak House. It’s not all comedy though. Some of it is highly tragic, but wrapped up with a lightness of touch so that the tragedy is just peeping up from underneath the surface. Dickens is the forerunner of Ayckbourn; discuss.
She’s accompanied on the piano by Benjamin Lee, whose sole purpose seems to be to add a little mood music here and there, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt he was rather superfluous. To be honest, he played so softly that you could barely hear him, and when he did chip in with the occasional piano version of “eye-tiddley-eye-tye” it seemed inappropriately flippant.
Miriam Margolyes is taking her Dickens’ Women on a long tour of the country followed by a North American tour, and you can find all the details here. Her two nights at the Oxford Playhouse were both sell-outs. Plenty of people decided to buy her book, which she was signing in the foyer afterwards. All in all, an aspirational crowd-pleaser for a well-read audience.