"Haunted by his own creations"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 17/01/17

Review written by Miranda Stewart

‘What are we but ghosts in waiting?’ asks Dickens in Untold Theatre’s powerful drama, The Ghosts of Mr Dickens. Writers Martin Levinson and Avril Silk brilliantly conjure up a story confronting Dickens with his own Ghosts of life Past, Present and Yet To Come.

It’s 1867 and, aboard ship on his second tour in America - the setting richly evoked through the imaginative use of props and digital projections - Dickens is tormented by visitations of characters, both real from his life and fictional from his novels. We are drawn into a world of virtual reality, where Dickens wrestles with voices from his own life (father, wife, sister-in-law/mistress?) and those of his own creation (Fagin, Uriah Heep, Mrs Nickelby) and the feelings of confusion and guilt these provoke. One world becomes indistinguishable from the other in his fevered imagination, and supported by a stage set which echoes the chaos in his mind, Levinson and Silk cleverly weave each seamlessly into the other.

His ghosts come in one after another. He’s visited by Fagin, grippingly played by Dominic Vallance who brings out the character’s humour as he challenges Dickens’ choice of making him a Jew. Then comes Uriah Heep (Joseph Rynhart), ironically referring to his insincerity and cloying ‘self-effacement’. Jess Levinson Young perfectly captures the comic confusion of Mrs Nickleby, the model for whom was Dickens’ own mother.

The play subtly leaves an ambiguity surrounding Dickens’ true character and feelings while drawing clear parallels with the narratives of his novels - his tragic childhood, visiting his father in a debtor’s prison (like Little Dorrit) and having to earn money for his family rather than attend school. The troubled relationship with his wife, Catherine, played by Aimee Kember, is sensitively drawn. Levinson and Silk signal one of his many torments in the suggestion of a forbidden mistress.

Above all, Matt Penson’s captivating performance brings the character of Dickens convincingly to life, ranging from flashes of tenderness to boiling anger. He powerfully transmits Dickens’ sense of being haunted by his own creations, each reflecting his subconscious anxieties and the struggle he has with his conscience.

This play is a must-see. It captures the culture of celebrity in Victorian times and the particular appeal of storytelling through performed readings. The play is a triumphant combination of insight, talent and creative storytelling offering revealing insights into the life and work of our foremost Victorian novelist - a man nearing the end of his life with his ghosts in waiting.

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