Dickens brought to life

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Simon Callow’s love affair with Charles Dickens continues, as one virtuoso to another, with a one-man show bringing two of Dickens’ one-man plays to life on a nationwide tour, taking in Brighton and Chichester.

Simon tells the stories of Dr Marigold, a travelling salesman who adopts a little deaf and dumb girl and Mr Chops, a freak-show turn who wins the lottery and a place in society.

On the whole, Dickens’s plays are terrible, truly terrible, laments Simon. These however are the closest he came to writing a successful play – brilliant pieces of writing offering that great Dickens ability to create the most vivid of characters.

For Simon, it’s a chance to renew friendship with former Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Patrick Garland, who directs.

“We first worked together in the mid ’90s in The Importance of Being Oscar. We then did the two Henry IVs at Chichester as Chimes at Midnight, and then we did The Mystery of Charles Dickens.”

And now come Dr Marigold and Mr Chops: “There are two stories that Dickens performed at his public readings – the closest to really successful plays that Dickens ever wrote. They are brilliantly effective theatre which Patrick and I have talking about doing for a while.

“The first is about a dwarf that wins the lottery and becomes the focus of a lot of attention from the rich and famous and is written up in the newspapers. Simon Cowell could have written it rather than Simon Callow perform it!

“The second is the most astonishing piece. It’s about a travelling salesman. It’s a fantastic, brilliant story, but the thing is that he tells virtually the whole story in patter. It’s a virtuosic piece of writing.”

Calling for a virtuosic performance?

“Well, I couldn’t say,” says Simon. But certainly Simon insists that there is no deep difference between acting in a conventional play and performing a one-man show.

“Like all acting, in the end it is just thinking yourself into the thoughts of another person. Any one-man show is just the same. It’s just that you can’t rely on any external stimulus at all.

“If you prepare properly for it, then, of course, it is fine. But it does mean that you have to be absolutely 112 per cent all the time. You can’t have a second’s lapse in concentration. I was talking to Barry Humphries about it. As Barry said, if you drop the ball for one second, it takes you ten minutes to get back.” And, of course, it has happened to Simon on occasion: “I am only human, but it is not a nice feeling!”

It helps that this is genuinely inspirational writing: “The thing about Dickens is that he is the writer and actor. When you are reading a Dickens novel, you do feel the presence of the author in every single character. In Shakespeare, you just feel the characters. But in Dickens you feel that Dickens is there all the time.

“There is no surprise that he was a brilliant actor himself and did a lot of public readings which were the big events of his time. Everyone went to see them.

The point is that for Dickens, that personal contact was important. It wasn’t enough for him just to be read: “He needed to see the whites of their eyes! He had an incredibly complicated inner life. He wanted… not so much approval, but connection. He wanted to feel that he was giving something to people that they actually appreciated. The warmth with which he was greeted was absolutely overwhelming.”

Simon speaks with the authority of one who has just written a book about Dickens the man for next year’s bicentenary: “It seeks to ask the questions what was he like, what was it like to be Dickens and to be with him.”

And the fact is that you can come up with answers with a degree of certainty: “He wrote enough letters to fill 12 1,000-page volumes! We have got a pretty good idea what went on in his mind!

“People adored him. He was exhilarating to be around. But he was tough, particularly to his own family. He behaved most disgracefully to his wife and he was very tough to his children. He really didn’t want to be challenged by his children. But whatever his behaviour, he justified it in all the sorts of ways that we all do…”

The show is at Brighton Theatre Royal from October 24 -29 and at Chichester Festival Theatre from November 21-26.