FOR the first time since the author himself performed them, two short plays by Charles Dickens have been brought to the stage. And who better to do so than Simon Callow who has become a specialist in barnstorming solo shows and has portrayed the great novelist on stage and screen.
The double bill comprises Dr Marigold, the story of a travelling salesman who adopts a little deaf and dumb girl, and Mr Chops about a freak-show act who wins the lottery and attempts to take his place in society.
It was Callow’s idea to revive them and his regular collaborator, Patrick Garland, has done the adaptation and put them on stage for the first time in nearly 150 years.
“Emlyn Williams did his own version of Mr Chops but Dr Marigold has not as far as I am aware been performed previously,” says Callow. “One or two Dickensian fanatics around the world have read it but to my knowledge it has never been done professionally before.
“They were written as short stories and Dicken saw their potential as public readings. He did Mr Chops a few times but it was Dr Marigold which became one of the most popular of the pieces he performed. It was an utterly compelling piece of storytelling and a tour de force of acting.”
Some of the issues it addresses touched Victorian audiences, says Callow, and so it does today.
“It deals with both suffering and joy and it’s surprisingly direct and meets its subjects headlong, some of them ones not usually discussed such as the treatment of deaf and dumb children.
“Mr Chops is really a parable about celebrity in its story of a dwarf who wins the lottery and is taken up by society and exploited until they no longer have time for him,” he continues.
“The stories have very different styles. Mr Chops is written in an old fashioned kind of cockney voice whereas Dr Marigold is set in the time it was written and the language is dazzling. It moves through Dr Marigold’s life like lightning in the patter of a travelling salesman.”
Callow plays the characters in the story rather than attempting to impersonate Dickens playing them. He says he has performed as Dickens elsewhere and these are characters he relishes playing.
Are there other Dickens plays he can plunder in the future? “There are a few other pieces but these were the ones I fell in love with,” he replies. “There’s a great one satirising railway catering about the woman who runs the station cafeteria and has declared war on good food but it’s probably a bit overdone for audiences today.
“There is another monologue which is a stream of consciousness by a woman which anticipates Molly Bloom by a hundred years. I’m not sure that people would be quite ready for me to do a theatrical tour in drag.”
Sheffield is the last stop on the tour of Dr Marigold and Mr Chops but that does not mean Callow is leaving Dickens behind. He is busy rehearsing a solo production of A Christmas Carol to run at the Arts Theatre in London over the festive period. “We are trying to find a new stylistic idiom to present it in. It’s one of those stories which has become a bit encrusted and you feel you know it so well but in taking another look at Scrooge I have found it a startling picture of a man who goes through a kind of hell.”
Dr Marigold and Mr Chops is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.