United Players

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, adaptation by Simon Webb

Dates and Venue 28 Mar – 20 Apr 2014, 8pm (matinées on Apr 6 & Apr 20 at 2pm) | Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street

Reviewer Roger Wayne Eberle

Modernity is not as much a compromise of Victorian ideals as it is a relegation of virtues like duty and conviction into a more vital vernacular, and Simon Webb’s adaptation of the United Players production of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop achieves this revitalization by transforming the original prose into a prosody of profound elegance.

At its more endearing and understated moments, of which there are more than a few, the United Players production of this Dickensian relic manages to make mute melancholy break into song until it dances around the issues of devotion and dereliction of duty beating with purple prose at its sentimental heart.

Young Nell (Olivia Huntsman), whose heartfelt devotion to her insolvent and gambling-addicted grandfather (Douglas Abel) puts her in peril with the local loan shark and malcontent Daniel Quilp (Kazz Leskard). Quilp makes enemies faster than you can spell Kit (Toby Verchere). Kit is another innocent child caught in the pinions of Quilp’s mean-spirited machinations. But Kit is just one among many. There are no less than thirteen more cast members, all of whom come under Quilp’s menacing spell.

This production, set around London in 1825, rises and falls on the performances of characters like the vile villain, Quilp; the aged grandfather whose secrets are never revealed until the very end; and the young innocents—Nell and Kit. It also shines in the minor but meaningful performances of Kit’s mother Mrs. Nubbles (Emma Middleton); Tommy Codlin (Ryan McDonald) and Jowl (Dick Pugh); and in the more substantial, genial garrulity of Dick Swiveller (Graeme Thompson).

Olivia Huntsman brings Nell to life as a sweet-spirited, genuine heroine whose hearty, sold sincerity is nowhere more evident and sensitive than when she is learning her lines in the wax museum to help support her grandfather, unless you consider her famous final scene worthy of a tear or two. It is Dickens, after all.

Douglas Abel looks like he stepped right out of a Dickens novel. For one thing, there is his craggy face, as well-lined as a Shakespearean sonnet and ten times more expressive; for another, there is the rich burgundy lustre of his vocal intonation. Abel puts a fine face on this grandfatherly figure who appears caught up in something far bigger than he can control: he’s borrowed from Quilp and lost the money gambling only because he’s out to make a better way for Nell, his dear granddaughter. But that’s only part of the story in this complicated plot, with surprise twists and an ending you might not expect.

Kazz Leskard injects Quilp’s dialogue with a rare and venomous harshness, rough-cut, and with just the right touch of raw-voiced ribaldry and ill-tempered invective to disgust and amuse his audience. He plays so well at this villain that you come to love to hate him.

The plot might occasionally seem to drag, but director Sarah Rodgers has done an admirable job of keeping things moving along briskly and brightly, and she has managed to bring out some nuanced and exceptionally memorable performances, especially from Thompson, Pugh, McDonald, and Middleton.

Also worth mentioning is the rustic and intricately assembled Carolyn Rapanos set and the immaculately designed adornments of the Catherine E. Carr costumes.

If you’re in the mood for maudlin, no one does it better than Dickens; and there is no better Dickens in town today than this Webb/Rodgers United Players production.

© 2014 Roger Wayne Eberle