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What the Dickens?!

by on 31 May 2021

Camping It Up

What the Dickens?! 

by David Hovatter

The Questors Theatre, The Courtyard Outdoor Theatre until 31st May

Review by Poppy Rose Jervis

On a bright day and buzz-wuzzing with anticipation, we find ourselves sitting in a courtyard (maybe not 19th Century flag-stoned type, of which many appear in Dicken’s work), and with a pocket full of curiosity in spite of shops being closed, and having been released, not from debtors prison but the ‘locked-in’ Covid jail where, although not paying a debt to society, we have all certainly been doing our bit for it’s good (the concept of which Dickens, social critic, would have approved and had plenty to say on the matter) and thinking to ourselves, ‘What the dickens is What the Dickens!? !?  and ‘What for this pun and minced oath?’.

Swap the damp, dark alleyways of Old London Town for a pleasant outdoor, leafy setting in the Queen of the Suburbs (Ealing), coupled with a gentle warming sun and light breeze (and even a little bird song), throw in an all-female cast in place of all men and you will get the idea …   

No, wait, swap the pleasant outdoor setting in the Queen of the Suburbs for a 20th Century holiday camp and think Dickens meets Carry on Butlins, fasten your socially distanced seatbelt for an energetic tumble with deliciously different transportation into 1960’s Dickens’ Butlins Land, David Hovatter (writer and director) style and you’re almost there.

Then hi-de-hi-ing in no quiet voice, pack your pre-conceived ideas (along with your political correctness) firmly away in your battered old suitcase, shove it into a bedroom at Bognor Regis, leave it there, and you’ve just about made it.

No need for the script and cast to draw us in, within the outdoor courtyard the audience are well and truly ‘in’ from the word go finding themselves sharing an area with a hatstand of pink fluffy hobby horse unicorns and not much else other than steel decks, a green bird sign, and what looks like a hat on an in situ rubbish bin (with a rather amusing attempt at its disguise with a black bin bag, no less!), a sound desk and props table and with a specially set up bar nearby … whether or not the fourth wall will be broken, it doesn’t feel as though one exists, as everyone is already feeling pretty well immersed. 

We are all sitting up nicely as one should in our informal, allocated seats, but, in fact, with a frisson of excitement, are collectively thrown right slap bang into the middle of a fast and furious farcical sketch without the need for furniture and elaborate building or in fact, really any set at all.                   

The mood is established, no lighting requirements and a perfectly timed sound design from Russell Fleet follows, being mainly music of the jaunty, happy or seaside holiday type, and humorous camp announcements which keep the performance nicely light-hearted and linked throughout and ensures the audience are amused and connected.  The sound design does not enhance, but instead is a main element of the created whole.

A large, eclectic and hilarious array of props (which must have taken some sourcing) keep the most critical eye both satisfied and amused and, more than that, are integral to the adventure.  They take the place of the set and are ingenuously multipurpose; cast travel via a bentwood chair tram (all the funnier for their seriousness), tennis racquets are delicious ice creams, fast moving paddles and the obligatory guitars, their presses held aloft are ‘peered through’ jail windows, you get the idea!

The Pickwick Papers was Dicken’s first and probably least dark and most amusing novel, developed from a series and widely popular with many theatre adaptations at the time.  True to story, Hovatter’s What the Dickens?! devised up-dation follows the sequence of a small group of men having misadventures and involves more than a little fun poking as their endeavours show their foolishness.  Instead of travelling around they are staying at a holiday camp while searching for the Tittlebat, a green bird (rather than a stickleback). 

In just fifty minutes we get the full package; the hat swiping, the bedroom misunderstandings, the duping, the bawdy, the seducing, the chases, the being thrown in jail, entertainment from the Macaroni Brothers and a little end clap-along in tandem with fake moustaches, wigs, curlers, feather boas, red jackets and plastic ducks to name a few, all employed with dancing, shooting, running on the spot, sneezing – you have the picture … all is there, nicely wrapped and presented, and tied together with a script of innuendo, wit and charm.  There is a green bow topping it which you will see for yourself with some amusement (your binoculars not required!). 

Well-directed stage groupings and clear sightlines in an efficiently used small space keep the audience on side and eager, as the actors choreograph with each other like instinctive clockwork and with unflagging pace and energy (in spite of putting on three performances a day), appear and disappear from the well-placed entrances and exits, meet and deliver the next chapter, grab and release props.  A clever incorporation of the internal rehearsal room behind.

…  and so, to the cast! – an unselfish, respectful and supportive bunch with superb interaction which made for effective dramatic impact as they bounced wonderfully off one another.  Projection and clarity were what one always hopes for.

     ‘ … mixing British comedy of the 1960s with Dicken’s classic witticisms.  In just 50 minutes, our vivacious, all-female cast will come bursting with hilarity as they capture the classic chronicles of the legendary Pickwick Paper

Samuel Pickwick, played by Alison Griffin as a somewhat quaintly unsuspecting, affable and kindly gent, quickly gains a loyalty from the audience.  Highly comedic though he was, Alison’s perfect balance of realism and sensitivity meant his relationships were wholly believable and the audience felt a great affection as they happily engaged with him and wished him well along his way.

Totally at home on stage, the self-assured Yvonne Monyer played Sergeant Buzzfuzz, embracing the audience while admirably multi-role-playing with wonderful facial expression.  She was a joy to watch.  A skilful performance from Becky Hartnup as Sam Weller, with an inclusive theme offering unfinished double entendre ‘prudence’, and additional characters, respectively provided a cocky spark and refreshing vivaciousness to the band.

Giving us her entertaining portrayal of the lewd and greedy Alfred Jingle, Samantha Boffin was a delight.  Whilst enjoying the showmanship of being on stage, confident, dastardly and rather dashing,she brought a pivotal energy to the production whilst Victoria Smith showed her versatility in many hats (!), playing Nathanial Winkle and others, giving a talented performance with a strong stage presence and excellent characterisation.

Alexandra McDevitt’s highly watchable performance as Tracey Tupman completed the merry band with a steady and consistently high standard of acting, engaging the audience throughout the delightful entertainment.

The show carefully does not slip into panto mode as it tells its story, but with the pacey and surreal unfolding of a carton strip.  A symbiotic relationship emerges with the small audience who feel part of this creation as the intimacy from proximity and reaction tangibly feeds and energises the cast who not only continually talk to the audience, but at times make eye contact. 

With most cast on stage under one guise or other for most of the time, a large number of additional characters are played with no less verve and expression as the cast dealt impressively with wardrobe and accessory changes.  Completing the package with attentive detail were the many deceptively simple costumes, along with the unobtrusive, but all important, continually changing hair, headwear, glasses, and makeup. 

“ ‘Women, after all, gentlemen,’ said the enthusiastic Mr.  Snodgrass, ‘are the great props and comforts of our existence.’ ”

Pickwick Papers

From the Enlightenment through to the sexual freedom of the 1960s and beyond, the political revolutions and social reforms publicly advocated by Dickens meant woman began to rid themselves of constraints and repression and started to be viewed differently.  This is not lost in Hovatter’s observations and his interpretation draws a parallel between time periods and similarities in attitude which is emphasised by his casting of females although he does, in fact, remain close to Dicken’s original portrayal of male characters.  Did this work?  Yes, because whilst the text is Hovatter’s, to have changed the essence from how they are defined by Dickens would have defeated the object of experimenting with the characters in an alternative setting.  Yes, because this play is one in which Hovatter has drawn and directed vivid characters which the cast have made their own.  In this excellent collaboration and interpretation, the characters spring to life and we have before us the real-life ‘modern’ forms of the British visual satirical characterisations of the likes of Robert Seymour and Cruickshank, oozing essence of lewd quirk and greed in political and moral mockery.

Interestingly and without reason, the impact of words being uttered by women seem to make the British 1960s postcard humour acceptable.  Musing on the all-female casting, one might wonder whether it was deliberate non-traditional, gender blind and inclusive, or whether it was using historical and narrative licence to make a social point, maybe for comic affect or merely to ‘be different’ using a perhaps predictable twist to the famous Pickwickian characters.  It could be argued that it’s not audacious at all and is just simple swapsies with women pretending to be men, and nothing clever about that, but simple swapsies it aint!  The dialogue has been sympathetically and thoughtfully crafted, the characterisation strong and successful.  We were not subjected to mere ghost females or cringeworthy mirroring of their well-known male counterparts and very happy to say, not inflicted to the unbelievable and distractingly, irritating strained gutterings of put-on male voices (a very wise move). 

… but was it an all-female cast?  In truth, not quite, as a cheeky little appearance by a male jailer who looked as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself (and one suspects may have been the writer-director?), is snuck in.  Should one write and direct a play?  No, is very often the answer and the cast no doubt, have their opinion for this instance … what was presented to the audience was a slick, polished and professional ensemble.

If it went against grain or brain to bracket, let alone throw into the melting pot, holiday camps and the 1960s with the mind and pen of Dickens, it won’t after having seen it.   This is a performance not just for those acquainted with, or having a particular like (or dislike!) for Dicken’s, and no matter if some or all references are lost on the audience – the writer and director brings a new appreciation for Dicken’s work in a refreshing and exciting production of his own … it feels devised, it feels scripted, it constructs, it de-constructs, there are caricatures who are not caricatures, it begs cast and audience to shake of stifling conceits, it makes a point – if nothing else, it is witty, wonderful, well-cast escapism.

A pandemic short run and restricted capacity, but for those who drew the long straw tickets-wise, was it was worth seeing and should the short straws be disappointed?    Most definitely on both counts; infectiously entertaining and humorously performed with clever script, and a tonic not just for pandemic times.  Arriving full of anticipation, the audience was not disappointed – we all like a good old, carefree romp and a bit of tomfoolery after all.

As ‘merry voices and light-hearted laughter’ rang out in the courtyard, the play writing and performance provoked as much pep, passion and pleasure as the publications of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (if not more!)

Keep your eyes open for more of the same at The Questors Theatre, inside or out, and snap up a ticket.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Congratulations to the company – this instalment was worth a shilling of anyone’s money …

Poppy Rose Jarvis, May 2021

Photography by Deirdre McGuire, Leon Postgate and Questors Theatre

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