Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Fast and faithful to Dickens, but lacking zest

The Old Curiosity Shop, Gate Theatre, Dublin

The Old Curiosity Shop, the Gate's Christmas offering, has a stimulating narrative, though lacking the kind of zest a Christmas show needs.

It centres on the dastardly deeds of Quilp, played by Mark O'Regan, with altogether appropriate exaggeration of the criminal acts of this degenerate dwarf. And it rightly brought down on his head, at the final curtain, old-fashioned hisses and boos.

There is, in this Dickens work, a problem -- that of Little Nell -- and Alan Stanford, who adapted as well as directing, wisely translates her death from the pathos of the original to a briefer, less prolonged demise. In this production, Nell, clearly suffering from pneumonia, as well as shock at meeting the evil Quilp on a bridge, succumbs swiftly in the final scene, diluting the story's original melodrama, which posterity judged to be excessive.

Nell is played with sprightly energy by Maude Fahy, making her debut along with others at the Gate. The play offers scope for some nice cameo performances.

The other problem for anyone translating this long novel to the stage is the insipid figure of Nell's grandfather, played apologetically by Nigel Anthony, and rightly so in view of his wilful betrayal of the young granddaughter he pretends to love.

Barbara Brennan's Mrs Jarley is a stimulating narrator and Master of Ceremonies. Conor McNeill makes a good comic part out of Quilp's 'Boy', and Kit, played by Michael Winder, is another of the well-realised characters who swirl about in this 'road movie' of a play, covering London, Stoke-on-Trent and places north.

Stephen Brennan, tall, elegant, wearing his clothes like a dandy, saves the work from inertia with help from Stephen Swift as Dick Swiveller, Barry McGovern as an evil lawyer and Donna Dent as his wicked sister.

The show is well-directed, the pace fast, as is the narrative. There is an element of pastiche, but Stanford's faithfulness to the Great Master, Charles Dickens, shines through.