Review – Dickens’ Women, Oxford Playhouse, 25th July 2012

Dickens' WomenWhenever 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.

Miriam MargolyesIt’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.

Mrs GampIt’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.

Oxford PlayhouseMiriam 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.

The meaning of the Real Chrisparkle

Thanks for the warm welcome to Blogland. Whether it’s good news or not, it has spurred me on to write more.

I doubt anyone reading this who has met me would think of me as Chrisparkle. But that was a nickname my mother had for me for as long as I can remember. Chrisparkle was the formal nickname – sometimes shortened to Sparkle – more often shortened to Sparks. If she called me Sparks I knew I was in her good books and there was nothing to fear. If she called me Christopher I knew I was in trouble.

I don’t know whether she was in a particularly literary erudite mood when she coined this nickname but it does come from the Reverend Crisparkle (note the lack of “h”) in Charles Dickens’ unfinished work “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Or, if you saw the musical show back in the 1980s with the late Ernie Wise, “The Mystery of Edwin Droo-oo-oo-oo-oo-ood”. He’s a goodly (not to mention Godly) soul who almost certainly didn’t do away with Edwin, although someone did. Crisparkle, that is, not Ernie Wise.

Here is a picture of the actor Martin Wimbush playing Cedric Moncrieffe playing Crisparkle (a.k.a. me) in the show in the 1980s – actually 15th May 1987 was the day I saw the show according to my ticket stub.

Reverend Crisparkle as played by Martin Wimbush

And here are all the suspects who might have killed Edwin. He is/I am Number 1.

The suspects for the murder of Edwin Drood

Now that my mother has fallen foul of the dreaded dementia, she doesn’t think of me as Sparks any more. She does think of me as Chris, which is a good thing, although she does suspect I may be her brother and not her son. Whenever I see her she does try to ascertain our relationship early on in the conversation, but sometimes she forgets during our chat. So by resurrecting Chrisparkle online, I’m bringing back something that had otherwise been lost, and I’m quite pleased about that. I also think that to sparkle or to spark is not a bad ambition.

Mum, circa 1947 Here’s a picture of Mum in more carefree days. I believe this was taken on the steps of the Madeleine church in Paris shortly after the end of the Second World War. Even though this was a long time before I was born I can certainly recognise some of the joie de vivre that survived for many years.

I’m sure she created plenty of sparks in those days with that cheekiness.