Nothing bleak about that!
Creation Theatre's new musical adaptation of Bleak House, set in Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford, is a classic. Read on for the verdict.
Charles Dickens’ novels are long players – the average reader takes a whopping 22 hours and 44 minutes to get through Bleak House (honestly, I looked it up!). But somehow, Creation Theatre has managed to condense the story into two and a bit hours, have packed it with live music and humour, and all with just five cast members.
If you haven’t managed to carve out a whole day to plough your way through the book (or even found a comfy spot on the sofa from which to watch the brilliant Gillian Anderson BBC mini series) , here’s the gist: orphan Esther is sent to Bleak House to live with guardian John Jarndyce and other young wards Ada and Richard. The play flits between Bleak House, London and the haunted Dedlock Manor with the locations and (many, many) characters linked together through an ongoing court case over an old will: Jarndyce vs Jarndyce.
Knowledge of the plot isn’t essential, but the first half of the show is fast-paced and it won’t hurt to know the basics before you watch – the small cast tackle multiple roles, changing out of one character’s outfit as they start speaking the lines of another. You’ll find a handy short synopsis in the programme if you’re not fluent in Dickensian.
Blackwell’s subterranean and expansive Norrington Room is the ideal venue, with the stage surrounded by three miles of bookshelves that you can explore in the interval (the tills stay open too, clever), with the audience watching from all four sides and the balcony above. What’s so brilliant about Creation Theatre is that they really know how to work a venue. The bookshop is an integral part of the play – ladders are used as props, papers thrown up in the air become London fog, torn pages are transformed into birds and the opening and closing of a hardback makes the clopping sound of horses hooves.
In fact, every sound is made by the cast who take it in turns to jump on the piano, play the violin, whistle and sing. They’ve seriously been practicing their harmonies – not a single bum note to be heard.
The script (by Olivia Mace), like the book, is witty and packed with humour. Creds must be given to Bart Lambert’s hilarious solo as posh Mrs Pardiggle and Eleanor House as the French Maid spluttering out random French words –‘croissant!’ ‘piscine!’ ‘pomme de terre!’ – whilst strutting around the stage.
In fact, Eleanor is the star of the show – her portrayal of lawyer Mr Guppy is also stand out, with the comedic mix of law jargon, innuendo (something about girth and length – I’ll leave that one to your imagination) and exaggerated movements leaving the audience in stitches. The few hairy moments – including the accidental knocking over of an audience member’s cup – were carried off seamlessly and only added to the humour.
Creation always offers something subversive and clever, and in this case, it’s transformed this Dickens classic into a fast-paced, funny, contemporary production.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: If you love classic literature, or are looking for something a little different from you usual theatre experience, this show is a dead cert. Older teens will also love this quirky interpretation.
Not for: The first half of this play goes at break-neck speed and may be tough to follow if you’re unaware of the story.
Bleak House, Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford. 1 Feb – 7 Mar 2020.
Words: Nancy Serle