OTG Nicholas Nickleby Portraits Kate Nickleby

“What a challenge! Squeezing Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, some thousand pages long, filled with more than 50 characters, into 2.5 hours on the Oxford Playhouse stage is no mean feat!

But Hedda Bird, Oxford Theatre Guild adapter and director, has done it (read about it here https://www.oxinabox.co.uk/its-a-celebration-of-theatre-nicholas-nickleby-marks-otgs-triumphant-return-to-oxford-playhouse/), ably assisted by costume designer, Alex Brinkman-Young, who thoughtfully colour-coded the characters and their morality – blue for the innocent Nicklebys, red velvet for the villains, soft peach for warm and generous characters . . . especially helpful when the actors were multi-tasking.

OTG’s Nicholas Nickleby Mr Squeers

As always, Dickens’ story is full of villains, victims, and the comically self-deluded. The disgraceful Squeers family  – shallow, vain, cruel and greedy – also carry the comedic weight of the play – Richard Readshaw as the owner of Dotheboys Hall Mr Squeers, Gavin Gaughan as Little Whackford and, especially good, Olivia Rogers as Fanny.

“the beating heart of the production is the abandoned and abused child-man, Smike, played brilliantly by newcomer Jenny Griffiths”

At the centre of these stories is Uncle Ralph Nickleby, played authoritatively by Simon Vail, arch-manipulator and money-lender, dispatching unwanted members of the family to the infamous Squeers’ “educational establishment” in Yorkshire (an excoriating portrait of cruelty and neglect that led to these “schools”  actually being closed down in real life). 

OTG Nicholas Nickleby: Crummles

The production is all about love and money, how money feeds child abuse and sexual exploitation, extortion and suicide (not much has changed there, then) and yet goodness and love (largely represented by Nicholas and Kate Nickleby) eventually triumph, you’ll be glad to know.

“hats off to this top notch am-dram group for getting through the Covid theatrical drought”

However, the beating heart of the production is the abandoned and abused child-man, Smike, played brilliantly by newcomer Jenny Griffiths.

Nick and Smike in Nicholas Nickleby by OTG

Without Smike, the emotional force of Dickens’ rollicking, heart-rending, terrifying, and utterly engaging original, risks being lost in the quick-change tableaux and compressed story-lines of the adaptation.

If the opening night was a bit creaky, this is Oxford Theatre Guild’s first production in the Playhouse in almost three years, so hats off to this top notch am-dram group for getting through the Covid theatrical drought.

SHEILA BAILEY

Nicholas Nickleby is at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday March 12. https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/nicholas-nickleby