Sunday 5 May 2024

London Tide at the National, or, Missing the Original's Points

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 27th April 2024.

 The omens for this show were mixed. On the one hand adaptor and would be lyricist Ben Power was behind the superb Lehman Trilogy, on the other hand I'd only encountered PJ Harvey's music once at an Edinburgh International Festival performance and the experience made me pretty doubtful as to whether she was suited to theatre. I also need to note that the show was up against tough competition - I consider the 1998 BBC TV version of this, my favourite Dickens novel, as a masterpiece of adaptation. Following an indifferent first half I found myself post interval increasingly infuriated.

The show clocks in at around three hours. That BBC adaptation was 4x90 minutes so some cutting of Dickens's substantial text is clearly unavoidable. But Power makes bizarre, and in the second half maddening, decisions (spoilers follow). The most serious of these is to decide that this is really a story about a certain kind of female empowerment. Yes two of the principal characters are women (Lizzie Hexham and Bella Wilfer) and yes there is social commentary in their stories but it is also the case that their love stories are central and, if you want to emphasise the social point, that of class rather than female emancipation from men is much more central to the Dickens original and would enable a much truer adaptation. In order to achieve his lecture about women's potential in the person of an independent Lizzie at the conclusion Power has to significantly mess around with the original. This is not simply by the refusal to allow Lizzie to marry a reformed Wrayburn but to make a joke of Headstone's violent attack on Wrayburn, and to substantially diminish Wrayburn's moral journey. Power similarly diminishes Bella's story. Dickens's novel is full of issues of class and wealth but this version makes almost nothing of this.