“It’s a mash-up of California and Dickens, The Grateful Dead meets The Ghost of Christmas Past … with a touch of Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure,” writes Adam Long, writer/director of Dickens Abridged, in his programme note. Long is a founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC), who “abridge” all they touch, from William Shakespeare to The Complete Word of God. And while this particular “mash-up” is produced by SJC productions, the RSC haunts it.
The life of Charles Dickens is churned out in 90 minutes, interwoven with his works. Five men (and no women, for no good reason) bill themselves as the “biggest Dickens tribute band in Santa Cruz”. Here is – or what is meant to be – a “love-letter” to the great author, laced with swottish gags and acoustic guitars.
What do we learn of Dickens? “Charlie” was a creature of “animal magnetism” and “a man of anxiety and sorrow”, prone to weird hallucinations. And we learn of his sad youth in a blacking factory and his father’s imprisonment for not paying his debts. We observe his obsession with Bill Sykes bludgeoning Nancy in Oliver Twist and how Miss Havisham, Micawber and Uriah Heep plague his dreams.
We experience Bleak House in 30 seconds and Little Dorrit in 10. Other novels are fleshed out more. It’s constructed artfully, with jokes thrown in – Fagin is “a good-hearted Jew who has a thing for little boys”, of course.
The cast flickers – not least Gerard Carey as a hirsute Tiny Tim and Damian Humbley as the doolally Dickens hounded by his own mind. There are smiles to be had at the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities and smiles at Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts. Other smiles surface too, but laughs are awfully scarce.
The Grateful Dead meets The Ghost of Christmas Past with a touch of Marx Brothers thrown in? More like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure collides with a college revue. Fun to act in, less so to watch.
And as for the love-letter? It doesn’t feel loving. Indeed you may begin to wonder if someone (Long) is simply following a tested formula: choose a famous writer, cram in his life and works (“abridged”) and hope it flies. It doesn’t.