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The Mystery of Charles Dickens (04/25/2002 - 05/12/2002)


New York Daily News: "Simon Callow Acts Like the Dickens"

The 19th century was a time of giants in all of the arts, none more towering than Charles Dickens, whose colossal energy continues to galvanize readers even in a time as illiterate as ours. The actor Simon Callow has harnessed that energy in "The Mystery of Charles Dickens," written by Peter Ackroyd, the English novelist and biographer, who wrote an enthralling biography of Dickens a dozen years ago. "Mystery" is a one-person show, but the actor who does it in effect plays two roles. Some of the time he is Dickens performing his work, as Dickens did throughout his career. At other times, however, he comments on Dickens' life and art as if he were an essayist or biographer. Callow gives us generous selections from "Pickwick Papers," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations" and, most important, Bill Sikes' murder of Nancy from "Oliver Twist," a piece of which Dickens himself was especially fond. The murder is a particularly grisly piece of writing. Ackroyd contends that the violence of the scene and the intense way Dickens threw himself into acting it had a severe effect on his already imperiled health. Friends urged him not to read it, but he was adamant that his audiences must hear it, suggesting a self-destructiveness paradoxically at odds with a man whose powers of creation were so stupendous. Ackroyd wonders whether Dickens' insistence on doing the murder scene stemmed from the misogyny apparent in his relations with his long-estranged wife. Such questions move the evening into literary analysis rather than straightforward dramatization. But it does not matter, because Callow responds to the tasks Ackroyd sets him with such gusto. Wearing a grandiosely Victorian outfit (Dickens was something of a dandy), Callow has a rich, resonant voice, a beautiful instrument for Dickens' vivid, precise prose. Christopher Woods has designed a marvelous Victorian library as a backdrop. It is framed by an ornate proscenium and a corner of a picture frame, a constant reminder that we are in a world of artifice. England, which has such an illustrious stage legacy, produced no significant theater for most of the 19th century (until two Dublin boys, Wilde and Shaw, moved to London in its last decade). Except, perhaps, for Dickens, whose writing is a kind of performance imbued with a deep love for and knowledge of the theater. It is no surprise that evenings based on his work come across so well on the stage. They build, as "Mystery" does, on the theatrical energy that was a crucial part of his art.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "'Mystery' Is Solved"

British actor Simon Callow doesn't look the slightest bit like Charles Dickens.But that doesn't dimish Callow's adroit lead performance in Peter Ackroyd's one-man show, "The Mystery of Charles Dickens."

Ackroyd, novelist, literary adventurer and critic, has created a play that dwells, very convincingly, on the premise that Dickens' life and character are indivisible from his novels.

So, he starts to tell the story of Dickens' youth, his unhappy years in London, and his eventual first success with "The Pickwick Papers" at age 24, which placed the world before him.

Throughout this biography, the characters of the novel intrude, interweave and almost interpret the life presented.

And, like Dickens himself, all of his characters breathe the dust of the theater like oxygen.

For it is Ackroyd's second premise that the key to Dickens, as both man and artist, is his love of the theater, and that his entire being was that of an actor - not on the professional stage, but in what the novelist himself was apt to call "The Battle of Life."

The play - staged with unobtrusive grace by Patrick Garland - has an attractive setting by Christopher Woods that manages to suggest proscenium arches within proscenium arches, and mirrors within mirrors, a concept beautifully apt for Ackroyd's viewpoint.

Callow gets to play three roles - the Dickens commentator, Dickens himself and, perhaps more importantly, any number of Dickens' characters.

Known here only through movies and TV, Callow is an astonishingly adept actor (he is also a director, writer and, notably, biographer) whom I have admired ever since I saw him as Mozart in the London world premiere of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus."

He flits around the surface of any role like a stinging mosquito, making the characters jump from page to stage with wonderfully entertaining audacity.

His dual portrait of Seth Pecksniff and Sarah Gamp from "Martin Chuzzlewit" is delicious, as is his picture of that xenophobic, jingoistic English businessman, Mr. Podsnap from "Our Mutual Friend."

Also, Callow can hit deeper, more melodramatic notes, such as in the last moments of Sydney Carton, or the brutal murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes.

So, here is Dickens - the light, the dark, and the mystery in between. A strange man. Odd characters. But Callow gives an immaculate performance.

New York Post

New York Times: "Crash Course in Dickens, Going at Full Tilt"

As the entire -- and immense -- cast of ''The Mystery of Charles Dickens,'' Simon Callow is the English teacher of your adolescent dreams. Or perhaps nightmares. That depends on whether you regarded English class as an occasion for learning or for thinking about grave issues like your popularity rating.

Mr. Callow, you see, is not about to let an itchy mind drift into reveries of life after the recess bell. As he gallops from cradle to grave through the story of England's most beloved novelist, from a script by Peter Ackroyd, Mr. Callow projects an enthusiasm and an urgency that make you feel it would be impolite and possibly life-threatening to look away.

As the entire -- and immense -- cast of ''The Mystery of Charles Dickens,'' Simon Callow is the English teacher of your adolescent dreams. Or perhaps nightmares. That depends on whether you regarded English class as an occasion for learning or for thinking about grave issues like your popularity rating.

Mr. Callow, you see, is not about to let an itchy mind drift into reveries of life after the recess bell. As he gallops from cradle to grave through the story of England's most beloved novelist, from a script by Peter Ackroyd, Mr. Callow projects an enthusiasm and an urgency that make you feel it would be impolite and possibly life-threatening to look away.

Impersonations, anecdotes, magic tricks, passages from Dickens's fiction, descriptions of 19th-century London, helpful thumbnail character portraits of the artist at different periods in his life: all these pass by in a gale-force whirlwind as delivered by Mr. Callow in the production that opened last night at the Belasco Theater. Ten minutes into the show, his color is high and his perspiration flowing freely. You may even find yourself sweating a bit in anxious sympathy.

Such intensity accords with contemporary accounts of Dickens, whose unearthly energy was often remarked upon. ''I'm working myself into such a heat that I shall burst out prodigiously,'' the play quotes Dickens as saying.

The story is also told of the author's climbing to the top of Mount Vesuvius when it was in mid-eruption and returning, he later claimed, ''alight in half a dozen places, burning from head to foot.'' Dickens had finally found his true soul mate in a volcano.

Burning is something that comes naturally to Mr. Callow, who has appeared to acclaim at the Royal National Theater in London but is probably best known for the film ''Four Weddings and a Funeral.'' When the actor becomes the novelist becoming his characters in the exhausting series of theatrical tours that hastened Dickens's premature death at 58, Mr. Callow does indeed give you some sense of how electric and alarming Dickens must have been onstage.

Unfortunately, Mr. Callow has had tasks assigned him other than merely to be Charles Dickens, as if that weren't quite enough. ''The Mystery of Charles Dickens,'' directed by Patrick Garland, is not one of your standard ''An Evening With . . .'' sort of entertainments, in which a performer assumes the character of a famous dead person for a couple of hours.

Mr. Ackroyd, an eminent biographer and novelist (''Chatterton,'' ''Hawksmoor''), has adapted the play from his ''Dickens'' (1990), a long and winding work that approaches 1,100 pages. He has assiduously tried to encompass as much of the book as two hours of traffic on the stage allows. This means that Mr. Callow seems to be performing an especially dense Cliffs Notes version of Mr. Ackroyd's biography.

This is perhaps why Mr. Callow brings to mind the more kinetic and inspiring schoolteachers of one's youth, all those actors manqué who turned the lectern into the Palladium to share their joy in their subjects. It's as if final exams were fast approaching, and suddenly the professor remembers, ''Oops, we forgot old Dickens!'' And so, within a single class, he crams in everything you need to know to pass tomorrow's test.

This does create an impression of undue haste. Blink and you'll miss the death of Dickens's daughter or his second tour of the United States. The format also forces Mr. Callow to be his own Alistair Cooke (of the early ''Masterpiece Theater''), delivering slices of history compressed into epigrams and capsule descriptions of Dickens couched in the usual catalogs of paradoxes. (You know, the old ''man of contradictions'' approach.)

At times, the play suggests the literary equivalent of a greatest-hits musical revue like ''Smokey Joe's Cafe.'' So Dickens fans are able to nod and smile when names like Sarah Gamp, Wackford Squeers and Samuel Weller come up. The smiles should broaden as Mr. Callow goes on to embody these characters with a combination of grotesquerie and passion that is indeed Dickensian.

Those less familiar with the Dickens canon may find themselves at sea. Despite all the annotative asides, things come at a mighty fast clip for full absorption. (You expect to hear a voice in the audience asking, ''What's a Podsnap, Mother?'')

The production has been mounted with élan. Christopher Woods's set, a mixture of trompe-l'oeil curtains and frames, elegantly suggests a meeting of theatrical and literary worlds. And Nick Richings's shifting, multitoned lighting keeps up with Mr. Callow's rapid changes of mood, no mean accomplishment.

There are also unsettling moments when you feel it is indeed Charles Dickens up there on the stage. This is especially true when Mr. Callow is being Dickens the actor in the last years of his life and particularly in his harrowing evocation of the novelist's famous portrayal of the death of Nancy in ''Oliver Twist.''

What sticks most provocatively to the memory, however, is a passage that describes the death of Dickens's 17-year-old sister-in-law, to whom he was devoted. Mr. Callow assumes Dickens's voice to declare, ''Thank God that she died in my arms, and that the very last words she whispered were of me.'' As Mr. Callow speaks the line, his eyes glazed and his face aglow, egotism, sentimentality, melodrama and self-deluding piety coalesce into a disturbing vision of the monstrosity behind one man's genius.

It's an act of eerie resurrection that confirms that Mr. Callow has indeed mined the darker recesses of his subject. He deserves the chance to portray Charles Dickens in full, without having to be his own commentator and tour guide.

New York Times

Variety: "The Mystery of Charles Dickens"

The formidable British actor Simon Callow single-handedly conjures up the rough and tumble of Victorian London in this well-crafted exploration of Charles Dickens' turbulent life and times, not to mention the writer's vastly more turbulent imagination. Essentially a lecture gilded with some theatrical trimmings, delivered by a professor with a preternatural theatrical flair, "The Mystery of Charles Dickens" provides intriguing glimpses into the connections between the factual and the fictional in the life of a man whose novels would seem too outlandishly dramatic to have any basis in actual experience. The play's author, Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, reveals otherwise.

The biggest mystery, unfortunately, may be why this popular West End entry was considered a viable proposition at the height of Broadway's spring logjam. Cozily housed as it is in the atmospheric Belasco, the production would have been better served by a late-fall or winter berth, when the competition was less intense and the weather more, well, Dickensian. The show may have a hard time roping in audiences outside the most frantically enthusiastic of "Masterpiece Theater" addicts.

That would be a pity, because it is written with eloquence and intelligence, and engagingly performed by an actor who would have been right at home on the Victorian stage, which is alluded to in the simple set design by Christopher Woods (a row of scallop-shelled footlights, a few oversized gold frames, a leather-upholstered chair).

Aided only by the at times subtle, at times floridly theatrical lighting of Nick Richings, Callow offers a comprehensive guided tour through the mind and milieu of a very complicated man. He discusses not only Dickens the novelist, but also the son, husband and lover, the playwright, the editor and pamphleteer, the sometime actor-director and the social activist.

The show flows chronologically, mixing third-person narration with snippets of Dickens' autobiographical writings. It is also frequently interrupted by the arrival of characters from the books, when the circumstances of the life evoke a famous scene or a particularly vivid fictional personage. So, for example, when we learn that Dickens' father is confined in the Marshalsea debtors prison, we are treated to a snippet of "David Copperfield," in which the same fate befell Mr. Micawber.

Callow's command of the material -- and of the stage -- is impeccable. He has a robust, beautifully trained voice, and simply to hear him enunciate certain phrases -- "slaughterhouse of blood," say -- is to be swept back to the era of gas-lit melodrama. Callow is sometimes too big for the movie screen, but his actorly amplitude is a perfect fit for a solo turn on a Broadway stage.

It helps that he has a real gift for the heightened emotionalism -- sentimentality, if you insist -- of Dickens, and the grotesquerie of his comedy, too. Director Patrick Garland might only improve the performance by encouraging Callow to lighten up on the flamboyant arms-flung-wide pose he tends to strike for extra emphasis.

While no match for the hair-raising outlines of even one of his slenderest novels, Dickens' life had its thrilling moments and its naturally poignant ones. His childhood was marked by sudden reversals of the family fortunes, but literary fame and fortune arrived early. His romantic life remains to a degree shrouded in London fog, but there was a complicated marriage (the death of his wife's young sister was a blow) and an alliance with an actress. There is even a nail-biting train wreck, believe it or not.

The evening's second act, which is largely devoted to re-creating the kind of best-of reading the novelist tirelessly performed during his latter years, is not as successful as the more eventful first. Here the excerpts from the novels begin to blend together, and the less-eventful nature of Dickens' later life drains some of the momentum from the show.

And Callow's energetic impersonations tend to blur together after a while, perhaps because, whether he's portraying Miss Havisham or Bill Sykes or Mrs. Gamp, Callow remains essentially Simon Callow. It's sometimes hard to tell distinguish the line between flamboyant character and flamboyant performer. But that's pleasingly apt, anyhow: As Ackroyd writes, Dickens himself had trouble distinguishing between the real world and the more vivid one he conjured in his mind.


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