As adaptations go, they don’t come a lot more ambitious than Simon Reade’s reimagining of David Copperfield. The semi-autobiographical novel by Charles Dickens is known for its expansive cast of characters, and this production sees all of them played by just three actors. Set against the backdrop of a Victorian music hall, this creative and enjoyable ride through the life of Dickens’ favourite character showcases the performers’ versatility and stamina, while providing plenty of laughs along the way.
David Copperfield (a thoroughly engaging Christopher Buckley) narrates his own tale from birth to adulthood, introducing us to a host of colourful characters from his stern aunt Betsey Trotwood to the kind-hearted Clara Peggotty and her family, the financially incompetent Mr Micawber to beautiful Dora Spenlow. All of these and more are portrayed by Katy Owen and James Peake, who are clearly having a lot of fun as they swap gender, class and personality to bring these friends and acquaintances to life. For the most part these characterisations are easily distinguishable from each other thanks to the quick donning of a hat or a scarf, or the adoption of a particular posture or accent, and the audience quickly becomes familiar with the recurring characters as they pop up again throughout the story. This makes the production in general very accessible to all, although a couple of the characters are so extreme that it does feel like you need to know the source material to fully understand what the actors are going for.
At just two hours running time, there’s a lot of story to get through, and the pace of Emily Raymond’s production is fairly breakneck, with David seemingly going from school to home to factory to his aunt’s house all in the space of about ten minutes. The Micawbers have barely been introduced before they’re leaving again (their protracted departures becoming a running joke that ultimately begins to wear a bit thin), David’s second marriage happens literally in the blink of an eye, and even the villainous Uriah Heep only gets one scene – though that one scene is certainly memorable. That said, at certain key moments this pace does ease and the story is allowed time to breathe; the plight of the Peggotty family in Norfolk is one such example, as is Mr Dick’s “trouble” with King Charles I and his attempt to ease it by flying kites. The show is also punctuated by musical numbers, written by Chris Larner and performed by the cast with piano from musical director Tom Knowles, which add little to the plot but are catchy and enjoyable enough.
For those not familiar with the’ novel, David Copperfield is an entertaining introduction which will make you want to go away and read it. For those who already know the story, it’s a warm welcome back to much-loved characters, and a whistlestop but faithful adaptation of the original. The production has humour and heart (not to mention a few surprises) and honours both Dickens’ creation and his love for the theatre in a charming piece of storytelling.
David Copperfield continues at Riverside Studios until 25th February.