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Little Dorrit

by on 23 January 2023

‘Everyone Should Have a Fantasy’

Little Dorrit

by David Hovatter after Charles Dickens

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

Review by Poppy Rose Jervis

‘In this bold adaptation of the iconic novel, we are transported to India during the British Raj, where Little Dorrit, a young, loyal daughter, works tirelessly as a seamstress to provide for her family … an impassioned adaptation that powerfully satirises class, wealth and British-Indian relations during colonial rule.’ 

As a hefty tome of some 600 pages with numerous subplots, an adaptation or ‘re-imagining’ of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens in any form would be no small or easy task.  Originally published as a serial and featuring the personally significant and oft referred to by Dickens, ‘Debtors Prison’, in which Little Dorrit was born, the story is set in London, in the 1820s, with a number of characters. 

This theatrical production, however, written and directed by David Hovatter, has fewer characters (but even so, has a cast of sixteen playing over twenty roles).  With its heavily satirised personalities and some fragile, sensitive souls, physical theatre and alternative text, it not only gives us a new perspective, but successfully transports us to India to do so.  In this insightful script, Little Dorrit’s father is a Prince who has lost his fortune but not his airs and expectations and sees nothing wrong as an older male who mourns the loss of his wife, with his young daughter devoting her life to finding ways to keep and support him.  She feeds him by sewing all day and going without food herself. 

Whilst being publicly supportive of the hungry, over worked, under privileged and poor in Britain, there is a lot of discussion around the outspoken racism in the work of Dickens, in his being anti-Hindu and in his defence of British privileges in overseas colonies while others were starving.  Nevertheless, he remains highly regarded by many in India where in 2012, Two Hundred Years of Dickens was widely celebrated.

With this in mind, the script provides us with food for thought in more ways than one.  The production is a personal exploration for the writer having both an interest in Dickens and in wanting to understand imperialism, colonialism and the British exploitation of India, while drawing on Kipling’s life in India for character inspiration.

A large number of the cast are Indian which, in this production, brings sharply home the personalities of the colonial British.  Hovatter styles his work as a ‘comment on colonial society in Edwardian India’ and can be seen as both a conceit and as drawing clever parallels in its adaptations – it is an inventive and creative piece of theatre.  The tale may be somewhat hard to follow at times, but the whole is so visually effective that it doesn’t matter.

The imaginative translation of the text into physical theatre gives us some dramatic scenes with no set other than a large black back drop, eight desks on castors, and six (I think!) chairs.  Looking deceptively simple, there are, in fact, many small props to be negotiated by actors and many quick changes as the cast appear and re-appear through a number of exits and entrances.  The Questors Theatre enjoys ‘voms’ (vomitoria – passages coming from under the tiered seating) as well as wings, which offer a huge dimension to productions and of which excellent use was made.   The audience is drawn in on many levels with a number of techniques and with the fourth wall being broken for the first time early on in the production.

An intriguingly large, clean set of empty grey thrust, with nothing other than the black drop and line of desks at the proscenium, invites curiosity – the lights go down … as they snap up, we are hit with upbeat music and, where there were none, actors in black, illuminated in various poses at the desks who, with, amusing choreography, put on black and grey clothing from within the desks and set about their day.

The story begins in an English college with history student, Arthur Clennam, bumping into a young Asian woman (Little Dorrit who is called Maya by her family).  She is studying the novel Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.  As the two shyly befriend each other and talk about their subjects, we find ourselves on a journey to India and watching a moving love story as they become Arthur and Maya. 

Adam Keenan, playing an Arthur Clennam somewhat younger than in the novel, journeys to see his mother and meets Little Dorrit.  The actors are well cast and Keenan, comfortable on stage, is loyal, protective, kind and reliable as Arthur, even after having suffered rejection from his mother all his life, while Sweta Gupta as Maya is thoroughly charming in a gentle performance.  Although it pleases her heart to look after her darling father, Maya needs somebody to look after and love her.

Amongst a strong cast watch out for some dynamic, exciting and intense moments from Vkin Vats as Rigaud, and Omar Aga as Merdle, whose excellent, high energy, intense performances contrast symbiotically with the sedate composure and gentleness of other characters, and some delightful delivery of lines, such as Merdle’s obsessional love with a large sum of money, ‘ … let it roll around your mouth and slide down your throat like a warm brandy’.

Playing wonderfully together, Mrs Merdle (Victoria Smith) and Mr. Merdle are fascinating – their desk is not just the vessel for the money within, or a surface to be used, but an extension of themselves and their passion and anger personified.  Smith’s natural, relaxed stage persona and Aga’s showmanship complement each other perfectly.

Meagles is a robust and convincing British stereotype with effortless projection from David Erdos, and we see a natural acting talent with Simon Taylor as the kindly Doyce, who also perfectly plays a professor at the start with a gentle, intelligent whimsy.

We experience different emotions and somewhat of an affinity with William Dorrit (as does Maya, towards her father) as Adil Akram embodies William’s deep, sorrowful and longing lows, and sadly excitable highs.

We are given a first insight into human nature early on as the ensemble, appearing anonymous in the general scheme of life, bring their individual fantasies to the fore in a movement, and without giving away the whole show, just two instances in a production packed are with skilfully executed illustrations.  One is the physical portrayal of trains which, while flavouring with typical England and India, link the story and the love.  The other is the gently comedic and clever depiction of the Circumlocution Office which nicely conveys the all too familiar frustration with red tape and bureaucracy.  Prison and prisoner scenes with Vkin Vats are superb.

While authentic accents and the speed of some lines may require concentration at times, the naturally beautiful musical lilt in both male and female parts is a charming joy to listen to. 

Arresting lighting fundamental to the striking tableaus and creative success of the play is enhanced by minimal but effective sound effects, and by music which illuminates and paints the tale beautifully.

There is no getting away from the First Act being long and it may be useful if this was made clear in the programme (along with the listing of multi-roles – a fundamental component and especially useful to the audience with this cast).  I suspect this may have been an organic, ‘devised’, ever evolving piece in which things changed after the programme publication.   The interval was planned at a ‘strategic’ moment but the story would probably not have suffered from a more balanced division giving the audience an earlier leg stretch.

With that indefinable something of a cast that have grown together and trust one another, this is an ensemble that works like clockwork with inventive ideas and good direction.  Sadistic at times.   Poetic at times.  Fun at times but not shying away from racism, greed and outright cruelty.

If you have doubts about Little Dorrit being a successful piece of modern physical theatre, ignore them … pack your doubts off with a non-return ticket on a mountain train to Kanchenjunga – this is a production that works.  It is well worth seeing.  If anyone doesn’t have great expectations, go along out of curiosity to see new ideas that are exciting, or simply to see a captivating, beautifully acted and touching love story.

Poppy Rose Jervis, January 2023

Photography by Evelina Plonyte

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