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. 

At the secondary character level it's understandable to get the audience out in three hours that things have to be cut, but again the choices are most peculiar. The Wilfer family get an excessive amount of stage time, Gaffer Hexham gets his own pointless musical number, and the expansion of Miss Potterton's role is irritating - to favour these characters and completely cut Silas Wegg and Mr Venus, I mean really? It's perhaps unsurprising in a version that isn't too keen on exploring the meanings of love that Mrs Boffin is cut completely, though again it diminishes several storylines that do survive. Betty Higdon can be dispensed with from a plot point of view but it's a curious decision given the desire to stress female empowerment since it also means that the key meeting between Lizzie and Bella is cut and the show's replacement attempts to link them feel forced.

Despite these significant cuts Power's adaptation lacks pace and dramatic tension. It still runs a long three hours, the songs don't help, and Power still fails to establish motivation in crucial instances. The most obvious is around the desperation of Wrayburn and Headstone's search for Lizzie. I thought longingly of the superb sequence in that BBC adaptation as Headstone follows Wrayburn through the London streets, driven ever more insane by his rival - a sequence that powerfully illustrates how Headstone is gradually goaded to murder - there's nothing comparable here.

Much has been made by the National of the songs being contributed by PJ Harvey but I'm afraid they would all be better cut. Half of them deliver essentially the same let's describe London message, Sondheim needed only a few phrases to establish a comparable London far more convincingly, though these songs are also hampered in creating atmosphere and place by a considerable production issue we'll come on to. The other half for individual characters tell us nothing that the adaptation doesn't convey in other ways. Music and lyrics are unmemorable, and the latter not always clearly sung - indeed the only phrase that I recalled even a couple of hours later was "London isn't England" which felt like tiresome point making. The whole situation is not helped by the fact this is mostly not a vocally strong cast. The band are located to the right (from the audience's point of view) but it's never really satisfactorially established why they need to be so visible, apart from the fact that it makes the bare stage slightly less so. 

That bigger production issue is that it seems as if the show might have been designed to announce to the audience that the National has a funding problem. The stage is largely bare for the entirety of the show. Perhaps this is why the production team felt they had to keep projecting the location names for fear we might not be able to tell from the onstage action. To try to disguise the empty stage the production resorts to overuse of raising and lowering the lighting rig. Occasionally this does manage to suggest the river Thames, but overall it fails to create a convincing world, and my partner who is much less familiar with the source material didn't recognise that the lighting rig was doing this until we were dicussing it afterwards. Power's Lehman Trilogy had a similarly spare staging, but used what it possessed with far more imagination, assisted by superior text and I'm afraid it has to be said a higher class ensemble.

The set problem is not assisted by the personnel management of director Ian Rickson and movement director Anna Morrissey. The choreography in the musical numbers is thin and undistinguished, and elsewhere the production team rarely succeed in creating that electricity in touch or relative position of performers that for me is at the heart of great theatre, and is even more needed when the ensemble is so exposed by the staging.

That ensemble is solid but fails to transcend the flaws of the adaptation and production. Bella Maclean's Bella and Ami Tredrea's Lizzie are stronger than their male lovers. Ironically perhaps the figure who gets closest to capturing a character with the richness of the original is Peter Wight's Noddy Boffin - the one moment when I felt that we might really be getting at something behind the text was in one of the scenes when he's talking about his secretary, but unfortunately, again, Power's adaptation doesn't build on this having cut all the complexity of Boffin's discovery of that secretary's true identity. 

One other problem has to be mentioned. There are two crucial acts of violence, and both here are frankly risibly staged. Headstone gives Wrayburn from my viewpoint what appeared to be a single blow on the shoulder rather than the head and the next time we see Wrayburn he is nevertheless bandaged round the head and yet pretty quickly up and about. The attempt to make plastic sheeting double for the Thames in the drowning at the end is equally poor.

I want to end with one cut I haven't yet mentioned which goes to the heart of the flaws of this show. In the original novel and the BBC adaptation we end with Mr Twemlow, a very minor figure in the rest of the novel but elevated at the conclusion to the voice of the public as Dickens would encourage them to be. In the BBC version for me his quiet tolerance and Lightwood's acknowledgement are really moving. The problem with so much of our strident one-sided political theatre (and indeed political life more broadly) is that I don't think it can see any longer how powerful that quieter voice can be. Dickens (and the BBC version) are I think clear whose side they're on but they have still left space for debate - but debate is, I'm afraid, exactly what so much contemporary theatre particularly during Norris's reign at the National has shied away from. Instead, as so often in the Norris era, this play ends with lecture. Overall, a dull and ultimately irritating afternoon.

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