Pickwick & Nickleby

CAITLIN DOHERTY: “the frantic pacing gave the impression that Swanton was desperately standing in, armed only with a range of funny voices and hats.”

ADC Dickens james swanton one man show

ADC Theatre, Larkum Studio, 8pm, 17–20th November, £5-6

Directed by James Hancock-Evans


It’s usually the job of a warm-up act to sweeten the crowd, in the case of ‘thespian gesticulator’ James Swanton’s Pickwick & Nickleby, this task was left to the pair of humbugs garnishing the audience’s seats.

There’s a peculiar art to a one-man-show, which necessarily stretches the illusion of theatre to its upper limit, and Swanton must be praised for the astounding energy he maintained throughout the hour long performance. The perspiration which glimmered on his top lip as he stammered the fearful excuses of a litany of hard-done-by Dickens orphans was certainly genuine. Yet the production’s main stumbling block was a lack of variation in pace. The first half, a reduced version of The Pickwick Papers, was largely unintelligible, due to the speed with which Swanton rattled through the verbose court scene.

There were some entertaining moments of physical comedy – particularly memorable is the clockwork sound which accompanied the cranking movements of Another Dickens Lawyer. However, the frantic pacing gave the impression that the other actors who were meant to be appearing had failed to turn up for their call that night and that Swanton was desperately standing in, armed only with a range of funny voices and hats.

This sense that Swanton had been abandoned on stage strongly suggested a lack of directorial influence on the production. It’s notoriously difficult to tell whether a particular gesticulation or vocal inflection is the creative work of an actor or director, but Swanton’s energy and evident ability as a comic actor should have been better guided by James Hancock-Evans into a performance that was less maniacally jumpy and allowed for greater distinction between characters. The show’s most striking moment was a rare instance of calm, when Swanton, as Nicholas Nickleby, lowered himself silently to the floor with a bearing of exhausted futility.

Chrystal Ding’s set made stylish use of all the props to be found in the ADC store-cupboard labelled ‘old stuff’. It’s a well-established design trope that Dickensian London can be signified through the use of cloth-caps, candles and a well-placed tankard on stage. Ding’s arrangement of these artefacts resulted in a throne-like centrepiece of shabby Victoriana, which evoked deceitful chancery clerks in the same way that dry ice might sometimes make you think of industrial smog. What a gramophone was doing onstage, besides looking a bit archaic, is still to be resolved.

Bethan Jones’ lighting erred frequently on the messy side, missing the cues for morning light on two occasions which left Swanton with the awkward task of announcing the dawning of a new day in a blackout. The electric blue wash used to indicate Nickleby’s arrival into Yorkshire was perhaps more ghost train than ethereal gothic, but still managed to convey a sense that something nasty was  about to happen to a destitute child.

Pickwick & Nickleby aimed for the sort of clinical grotesqueness that characterises BBC Dickens adaptations, but under-direction and a lack of self-discipline in Swanton’s performance made it feel more like a bottom of the bill act in the world’s most am-dram variety theatre.