Mystery of Charles Dickens, Norwich

The Mystery of Charles Dickens is an astonishing theatrical tour-de-force, with Simon Callow holding a packed Theatre Royal audience spellbound.

By TREVOR HEATON

A prediction – sales of the works of Charles Dickens will be hitting record levels in Norfolk.

The reason? The Mystery of Charles Dickens – an astonishing theatrical tour-de-force last night by Simon Callow which held a packed Theatre Royal audience spellbound.

Only Shakespeare rivals Dickens in the creation of so many memorable characters. And through Mr Callow last night many of those characters lived and breathed, from the obsequious Uriah Heep to the murderous Bill Sikes, the heartbroken Miss Havisham to the villainous Wackford Squeers.

Just as Dickens assumed the guise of his characters – literally acting out their roles as he wrote their dialogue – so Callow brought his expansive theatrical technique to bear with great effect to bring not only the fiction but the factual to life.

As he explained, Dickens was in love with the theatre all his life. What to later observers seemed like purple prose was written to be read aloud and to be acted, as Dickens himself triumphantly demonstrated with his famous reading tours.

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Mr Callow, who has had a lifelong love affair with the works of Dickens, outlined the dramatic events of Dickens's life, taking in the misery of childhood poverty to the sudden death of his beloved sister-in-law aged just 17, and his sudden fame with Pickwick Papers when he was aged only 25.

But with that fame came the darker side. For, as Mr Callow outlined so eloquently, Dickens the eloquent, Dickens the actor, Dickens the famous, could also be Dickens the cruel – the man who so despised the wife who bore him 10 children that he had a wall built in their bedroom so he would not have to see her.

The second act took in the last few years of Dickens's life, from the age of 45 when it seemed as if his creative spark was burned out, to the collapse of his marriage and the ambiguity of his relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan, and then to his death at 58.

The mystery at the heart of Dickens for some was the nature of his relationship with Ellen. But, as Mr Callow demonstrated, it was the depths of the novelist's own soul and its contradictions.

Some of the most powerful sections of last night's performance were when Mr Callow recreated some of the most famous passages from those reading tours which reignited the public's passion for Dickens's work.

It was gripping stuff for Victorian audiences at the time, and more than 150 years later that drama lived again for the Theatre Royal audience that hung on every word.

t This excellent show runs until Saturday September 28. Box office: 01603 630000.

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