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Little Dorrit

by on 21 January 2023

The Root of All Evil?

Little Dorrit

by David Hovatter after Charles Dickens

Questors Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 28th January

Review by Steve Mackrell

There is a rich tradition of adapting novels into stage plays, and the works of Charles Dickens are no exception, with recent examples including Nicholas Nickleby and A Christmas Carol.  Indeed, without the novels of Dickens to adapt, the world of theatre, film and television would be that much poorer.  The latest Dickens adaptation to reach the stage is David Hovatter’s vision of Little Dorrit presented by Questors Theatre, Ealing. 

The theme of Little Dorrit is debt and, more generally, money – and the problems associated with having either too little or too much of it.  Money is a frequent theme of Dickens perhaps because, as a child of twelve years old, he suffered the trauma of seeing his own father taken into a debtor’s prison – a completely illogical punishment given the debtor was unable to work and hence couldn’t earn any money to pay back the debt.  It’s been suggested that perhaps his own father could have been the model for a character such as Mr Dorrit and, indeed, the book Little Dorrit  is divided into two halves – “poverty” followed by “riches” – with the extremes of both being equally unpleasant; although, being a Dickens story, the “riches” soon returns to rags. 

However, in David Hovatter’s adaptation, we are transported into a world far away from the grim streets of Victorian London and are relocated in Edwardian Shimla in the hills of Northern India.  Gone is the mean Marshalsea debtor’s prison in London’s Borough High Street to be replaced by a decrepit Indian palace in which the poverty stricken noble is held as a virtual prisoner.  

Gone is the original background of little Amy Dorrit, born in the Southwark debtor’s prison, now replaced in India by little Maya Dorrit but, like Amy, also working as a seamstress for a meagre pittance.  But in terms of character, it is still the same little Dorrit, a kind, tender-hearted girl who cares for others and provides the practical and emotional support for her father William, brother Edward and sister Fanny. 

To call this production an adaptation of Little Dorrit is perhaps misleading because that would entail a straightforward re-telling of the story line – a difficult task in itself, given the complexity of plot and abundance of rich characters.  Instead, this interpretation is a total reimagining of the story which both challenges the audience and provides a profound theatrical experience.  The production is the creative vision of writer and director David Hovatter who has produced an intense piece of physical theatre with a versatile ensemble of sixteen players. 

However, given the original complexities of the book, and now with the added overlay of Hovatter’s unorthodox vision, following the narrative becomes somewhat of a challenge.  For example, in the opening scenes there was the puzzle of where we were located, and in what era, given the wearing of modern dress and the use of mobile phones.  We then discover Amy Dorrit reading a Dickensian book called Little Dorrit while the hero Arthur Clennam is studying history at University.  Clearly, nothing is going to be straightforward in this production, and we are subsequently hurtled into a scene where the ensemble act out a train journey on the Underground.  We then seem to be on a similar train journey, only this time, the ensemble are huddled together on a journey into the Himalayan foothills to Shimla.   This, is now the India of 1907, and we seem to have entered the fantasy world of little Amy Dorritt and Arthur Clennam.  Wow!  Quite a lot to take in and possibly some stronger plot directions would help our understanding – especially because, in the early stages, there’s a frequent flow of new characters who are difficult to assimilate.  Also, our understanding is not helped by some poor diction when characters are introduced.  

Of course, Dickens intent in writing Little Dorrit was to satirise English government and society of the early nineteenth century with its mannerisms, narrow-mindedness and snobbery.   The satire has been kept in David Hovatter’s reimagining but transferred to India and British colonial rule.  Observations include “One hundred English ruling three million Indians” and, in a reference to a servant, “smiling as if they knew something.”  Acknowledgement also to the agony of India “you can be healthy in the morning and dead by the afternoon.”  The script also keeps faith with the “pass the parcel” bureaucracy of the Department of Circumlocution with an amusing sequence whereby the ensemble act out the roundabout of buck-passing.  Indeed, part of the charm of this production is the frequent insertion of effective music and movement sequences. 

The set is minimal – and for props – just a few chairs with eight vintage wooden school desks on wheels.  In fact, the desks are used frequently and effectively, for example, in the eye-catching opening sequence where the ensemble work hard in delivering clever movement and choreography. 

The ensemble, mostly dressed in black, are well drilled and fluid with their entrances and exits.  Particularly sensitive performances by the “young lovers” played by Adam Keenan (Arthur Clennam) and Sweta Gupta (Little Dorrit).  Adil Akram (William Dorrit) bought a feeling of poignancy to his impoverished state, transforming into wide-eyed joy in his affluent elevation, while Omar Aga (Mr Merdle) was “in your face”, robust and forthright.  Carol Fullilove (Mrs Clennam) played a firm and authoritative mother figure and a couple of enjoyable cameo roles came from David Erdos (Mr Meagles) and Simon Taylor (Doyce) as the enthusiastic and eccentric inventor.

This production is not for the casual theatregoer.  It is an intense experience which shows a brave and different approach in interpreting a famous classic novel for the stage.  It is a challenging production, which transfers the narrative of the flawed society of Victorian London to the equally flawed, but multi-racial society, of Edwardian India under the domination of British colonialism.  But, there again, perhaps it’s just a simple love story.

Steve Mackrell, January 2023

Photography by Evelina Plonyte

One Comment
  1. Meet Kakadiya permalink

    It was a great read..a great story..!!

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