“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” is Charles Dickens’ “Pilgrim’s Progress” with a shading of “Les Miserables.” It’s the story of a poor, virtuous young man come from the country with his sister and mother to London, where every imaginable evil lurks to test him. Greed, indifference, cruelty, profligacy, betrayal and selfishness buffet his body and soul.
Throughout the play, which roams from 19th-century London to Yorkshire to Portsmouth and back, he is manipulated by a rich money-lender uncle and pursued by a sadistic schoolmaster for whom he had once worked as a teacher. His innocent sister is used by the uncle in a scheme to defraud a spendthrift lord. The schoolmaster, who starved, cheated and beat his charges before Nicholas fed him his own medicine and fled, is his implacable foe.
His wanderings are made all the more difficult because he has in his care a crippled, simpleminded lad he saved from the schoolmaster’s clutches. Despite all, young Nickleby retains his honesty and decency and the end finds him happily married, his family financially comfortable and the villains done in.
Melodramatic? Of course. Corny? Sometimes. Full of unlikely coincidences? That too. In this morality play, good and evil stand opposed, polarized in black and white without any grays. Yet such is Dickens’ rage at the inequities of society and the meanness of human beings that we are carried through 8 ½ hours of stagecraft with few moments of tedium.
There are several reasons for this. One is the constant ebb and flow between drama and humor. Then there is the remarkable Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble, about 40 actors who can in a minute change character, costume and accent for hundreds of roles. In addition, using their bodies and crates, they create the illusions of coaches, buses and the throngs of London street life.
Furthermore, the narration of Nicholas’ journey, which ties the adventures together, skips from one mouth to another, one height to another as it alternates between actors on stage level and those on the catwalks and scaffoldings that cement the image of city houses and balconies. Finally, sending the actors into the audience creates a firm rapport.
There are however, reservations. For one, this production seems a trifle burlesqued when compared to the 1981 version. I realize that most of the characters are supposed to be caricatures, yet some performers overplay their hands.
For example, there is a scene with Nicholas, his sister Kate and their gossipy, ever-chattering mother. Nicholas and Kate groan, raise their arms in despair and roll up their eyes. Then Kate comes up behind her mother and wiggles her fingers over mom’s head as if to stop her from talking by tearing her hair out. Too much. The point has been made.
Then there are the important characters. The 1981 originals were beyond cavil. Here, Michael Siberry as Nicholas manages a skillful yet scarcely inspired performance. The roles of Kate, the Nicklebys’ friend Newman Noggs and the crippled Smike – as portrayed by DeNica Fairman, David Collings and John Lynch – do not approach the dexterity of their predecessors.
Particularly Lynch. In 1981, David Threlfall’s Smike evoked the deep pain and anguish of a young man who, having been brutalized most of his life, fears the newfound love offered by Nicholas and Kate will vanish at any moment. With Lynch, it seems all surface technique.
Altogether, though, this “Nickleby” is an imposing piece of theater. Its eight-hour plus length, divided into two segments split by a dinner break, costs $100 to see. In fact, the price is alluded to hilariously in the play by a wondrously hammy actor in a third-rate traveling company. Deftly portrayed by Tony Jay, he tells Nicholas that he is leaving for America because he was told that Americans will pay anything for a good show. The ones that attend this drama will not be disappointed.
From the moment that the first English muffin is thrown through the air, the magic is back.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has returned to gladden our hearts with a special engagement (through Nov. 16, at the Broadhurst Theater) of its 1981 production “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” If you’ve seen it before, be assured that the 8 ½-hour experience is no less enchanting the second time around. And if you’ve not yet tasted the delight of it, come prepared to laugh and cry and lose your heart.
Trevor Nunn and John Caird have recreated to perfection the original wrap-around environment representing Dickens’s London in 1839. John Napier’s overhanging catwalks and balconies give the cruel pinch of an iron corset to the scenes below, which sweep us along on young Nicholas’s panoramic tour of life as it was lived on all levels of society in Victorian England.
The 36-member company plays more than 100 characters, and uses its collective body and wits to transport the teeming narrative from scene to thrilling scene. Turning themselves into carts and omnibuses and other remarkable conveyances, the actors race us through the city of London, from fashionable salons and theaters and gambling houses to the most unspeakable slums imaginable. In one spectacular feat of theatrical legerdemain, a splendid stagecoach appears, to whisk Nicholas off to his teaching post in the country, at the pestilential snakepit, Dotheboys Hall.
The ensemble work is no less dazzling this time around, as the actors nip in and out of a fabulous array of costumes and wigs to create their multitudinous characterizations.
The Nickleby family is golden-haired and plumply country-fed in the new cast. Frances Cuka dithers us all to distraction as the Widow Nickleby, and DeNica Fairman’s sensible Kate is a saint to put up with her mother’s silliness. Michael Siberry makes a fine, sturdy chap of Nicholas, although he lacks the brooding passion of Roger Rees, who originally gave the character an inkling of insight into his own impatient and violence-prone nature.
The most interesting person in the play is still Ralph Nickleby, the cold and cunning money-lender who hardens his heart against his own family because they represent the all-too-human inclination to sentimentality and romantic illusion that he most despises. John Carlisle – who has perfected a sneer of contempt that is so hot and piercing it could cook a goose – plays this unhappy villain like a proper Byronic hero.
The crowded stage bristles with other colorful portrayals of the human landscape – some of them, like John Lynch’s heartwrenching orphan Smike, brilliantly sustained through many scenes; others, like Alan David’s flamboyant artiste, Tommy Folair, briefer than a bird call.
Among the more memorable: the squealing little brute that Jane Carr makes of the envious Fanny Squeers; the majestic wit and girth given both Mrs. Crummles and Mrs. Squeers by Pat Keen; Eve Pearce’s soft-hearted Miss La Creevy; David Collins’s meekly heroic Newman Noggs; and the preposterously pompous Mr. Lillyvick play by Timothy Kightley, one of the few familiar faces from the original company.
From the astonishingly detailed characterizations to the fussy little stitches on the ladies’ white mobcaps, the entire production is so crammed with the most carefully wrought details that the experience of “Nicholas Nickleby” offers an inexhaustible joy.
''The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,'' which returned to Broadway yesterday, is, at the same time, an abundant evocation of the world of Charles Dickens and a converging of the acting, directing and design artistry of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Those who did not see the show in its original London and Broadway engagements should share the initial audience's euphoria at being caught up and swept away by the adventure. Those who did see the earlier version - I saw it three times and once on television - will discover that the revival is different, a difference both of casting and of tone. As restaged by its co-directors, Trevor Nunn and John Caird, the new, revised version is in residence for a limited season at the Broadhurst Theater, overhauled with ramps and catwalks to provide an extensive ''Nickleby'' environment.
Presented in two parts, ''Nicholas Nickleby'' offers theatergoers eight and a half hours of monumental theater, as we follow the journey of the headstrong title character through a Dickensian England where ''wealth and death'' exist side by side. This is a city and country teeming with character, atmosphere and incident, a place where inhumanity rules until, eventually, virtue is triumphant.
With 32 actors performing the duties originally assigned to 39 -duties that include transforming properties into scenery as well as creating characters - there is more doubling in major as well as minor roles. As before, all the principal characters in the novel are represented on stage. Only five actors remain from the original company, and one of them, still playing a philanthropic Cheeryble brother, has lost his Father Christmas beard. The sinister Ralph Nickleby is taller, Smike is smaller and Nicholas and his sister, Kate, have both become blond. That latter fact could be regarded as a metaphorical representation of the tonal change in the production.
The new ''Nickleby'' offers a more steadfastly idealistic view of its subject. We still hear about the Dickensian themes of money and the power of money, about the vicious class disparity of England in the 1830's and the humbug of politicians. The powerful ensemble depictions of divided London - starved faces staring blankly at a sybaritic society - are visceral reminders of the bleakness of the author's vision. Simultaneously, an air of optimism brightens the tale. It is Newman Noggs's credo of ''Hope -always hope'' that transcends Smike's despairing cry of ''Hope-less.''
As now performed, the play is bursting with youthful enthusiasm, as personified by Michael Siberry's plucky Nicholas, a stark contrast to the brooding intensity of the original Nicholas, Roger Rees. Though Mr. Siberry's characterization is actually closer to the author's initial description of Nicholas as open and ingenuous, Mr. Rees seemed to alert and to polarize everyone around him, which, for one thing, gave a greater theatrical excitement to his collisions with his enemies.
On his own terms, Mr. Siberry is thoroughly engaging - and best in the romantic scenes and in his fraternal encounters with Smike. DeNica Fairman is an appropriately demure Kate (at odd moments she looks a bit like Sarah Ferguson, which may make her a Kate for 1986). David Collings is quietly diligent about portraying the decencies of faithful old Newman Noggs. But, to make the distinction between talent and brilliance, Mr. Rees and Edward Petherbridge (as Newman Noggs) are the actors whom we miss most in the current production.
Even as that is said, one must accept the fact that, as a classic, David Edgar's play ''Nicholas Nickleby'' will be - and should be - performed by diverse actors. Wisely, the directors have not led the new company to emulate its predecessors but to find alternate approaches to roles. Some actors succeed in creating their own vivid portraits.
With a face that looks carved in ice, John Carlisle is all malicious resolve as Ralph Nickleby, so stern in his self-devotion that his final, brief flare of conscience takes him by surprise. Tony Jay makes his introduction, ''Yes, I am Vincent Crummles,'' seem irrefutable. From his crisp consonants to his manicured manner, he is the Hyperion of histrionics.
Jane Carr plays the roles that proved to be career transforming for Suzanne Bertish, and ''Nicholas Nickleby'' should have the same effect for her. Miss Carr's Fanny Squeers, an exquisite impersonation of the schoolmaster's homely daughter, is one of the production's primary delights. As proof of her versatility, Miss Carr moves on to play the glamorous Miss Snevellicci in the Crummles troupe as well as the cackling old crone Peg Sliderskew. A neat paradoxical double is offered by David Delve as Squeers, the sadistic schoolmaster, and as a drunken member of the Crummles company (the most deliciously evil of all the Squeerses I have seen was Ben Kingsley in the first London production).
Sharing the spotlight with Mr. Rees was David Threlfall as Smike, the outcast, and their paired performance will remain indelible. The revival forms a contrasting partnership. The companion to Mr. Siberry's robust Nicholas is John Lynch (remembered from the movie ''Cal''), whose Smike is close to a wild child, newly hatched into civilization and unable to verbalize or to physicalize his feelings. His sad, hollow eyes look piercingly for sympathy and his feet are so crippled that every step seems to cause a wince. He mimes and acts his role, halting movement reflecting halting speech. As was true of Mr. Threlfall, Mr. Lynch justifies the Crummles description of Smike's possibilities as an actor eminently suited ''for the starving business.''
Script changes are minor - Nicholas's romance with Miss Snevellicci has been trimmed and occasional lines have been added - but there is a definite change in directorial attitude. As led by Mr. Nunn and Mr. Caird, the company foreshadows plot points and clarifies causal connections.
On the one hand, this makes it easier for a theatergoer who is unfamiliar with the novel to follow the intricate plot (65 chapters condensed into five richly textured acts). On the other hand, subtlety is sacrificed, especially in the scenes in which Sir Mulberry Hawk lays siege to Kate Nickleby's virtue. In fact, the Mulberry Hawk-Lord Verisopht subplot is one definite area in which the current production suffers in comparison with the original.
Some of the embellishments are useful - and provoke laughter - but others are unnecessary. This is the case, for example, in the scene between Mrs. Nickleby and her vegetable-throwing suitor next door. The man turns out to be insane, but, as now played, he looks like a lunatic, wearing a fright wig that must have been consigned to the Royal Shakespeare costume shop after the last performance of ''Marat/Sade.''
Furthermore, the audience knows that Mrs. Nickleby, though well-intentioned, is a prattling bore. In the new ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' other characters repeatedly call our attention to that fact, and, at one point, Kate uncharacteristically signals her exasperation behind her mother's back. I am not convinced that the emphasis in this and other matters is justified, although it may lead the show to have a broader popular appeal.
At its heart, ''Nicholas Nickleby'' remains true to Dickens - many of the lines are taken directly from the novel, dialogue as well as narration -and to first principles of theater. The show stimulates our eyes as well as our minds. For its entire duration, it enraptures the audience in a romantic, but throbbingly real world, moving us with an eloquent moral tale of the possibilities of redemption and regeneration.