Sikes & Nancy: The London Adventure

As though in imitation of Oliver Twist, I travelled to London on Sunday – to seek my dubious fortune! To shrug off the terror of my engagement at the Tristan Bates, I’d decided on a somewhat-frolic. This meant one thing: the matinee of Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre. I’m in no way alone in this (thank goodness), but I adore Roald Dahl – his short stories, his fictionalised autobiographies, and (most particularly) his children’s books. I number The Twits, The Witches and The BFG among my special favourites; Matilda is another. There are Swantonian reasons that I revere this quartet: the grotesquely etched characters; the joyful revelling in the frankly revolting; the sheer free-wheeling imagination that fired these stories. Who but Dahl would pit flesh-eating giants against the Queen of England?

Beyond that, though, there’s something much more inscrutable. Which is the point, I suppose: Dahl’s stories are charged with the essence of childhood. At once an absolute inability to accept injustices, cruelties, sadnesses (and thus a positive ecstasy once they’re overturned), and the stoical endurance of the quite unacceptable. The apotheosis of the Dahlian worldview may come in The Witches, in that breathtaking scene where the boy-cum-mouse says he is content to die, in only a few years, alongside his beloved grandmother. As Lillian Gish says of children in The Night of the Hunter: ‘they abide and they endure’. May we all be as strong.

I had two other reasons for seeing Matilda. Firstly, listening to the soundtrack was one of the activities that got me through my finals. (I also learned quotations, but I reckon the soundtrack was more important.) And secondly, David Leonard is playing Miss Trunchbull. I’m convinced that Leonard was one of the first people who inspired me to act. I say ‘people’ – the other guilty parties are the Old Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Judge Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Leonard was the first flesh-and-bone actor who got beneath my skin; his parade of fairytale villains in York Theatre Royal’s panto were the premier bogeymen of my childhood. Leonard’s magnetism is difficult to explain for the uninitiated. His voice is a beautiful instrument, crisp and crackling by turns – there’s something of the purr of George Zucco, the drawl of George Sanders, the resonant timbre of Richard Burton. Leonard’s physical grace never ceases to astound me either. Despite playing Miss Trunchbull, the most brutishly physical of grotesques, his every gesture was smooth and clean. A precision quite mesmerising to behold; the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Leonard would have made a stunning actor in silent films. Yet Leonard’s face is a thing of insane (albeit localised) animation. His eyes can again be compared with those of George Zucco – glowing pinballs that swell in and out of sight. Suffice it to say that every rogue I’ve ever played has carried a little of Leonard’s source material.

I’m happy to report that Leonard’s panto stylings were much in evidence in the Trunchbull. He certainly rose above the musically talented but resoundingly wooden ensemble. To see someone so familiar flourishing in this epic context was quietly emotional. Back in 2008, Leonard was also the man who agreed to voice the Telescreen Announcer, unpaid, in 1984 – in which I voiced Emmanuel Goldstein (unpaid, obviously). A humble man – and a great one. An inspiration and an example.

Thoughts of the Tristan Bates made for an unquiet night’s sleep. This is largely because I hate telling people what to do. On the day itself, though, things instantly became manageable. It’s the experience of a one-person show extended to the production entire: because you’re self-reliant, you just get on with it. And despite Cambridge drama’s capacity for staggering ineptitude, blimey – you do at least learn how to equip a theatre. The get-in was simple enough: my Sikes & Nancy paraphernalia is modest enough to squeeze into a suitcase and a rucksack. I brought back my blackened skull centrepiece (familiar from the Cambridge run, absent in York), relocating it to downstage centre to disguise my tray of blood. I’d also brought some surplus cloth along, in order to disguise the modern chairs of the Tristan Bates. This worked much better than expected, although it did mean bidding goodbye to my faithful Dracula cloak – the same one I’d worn for the finale of Return to the Forbidden Planet in 2007. The tech was also pretty slick. Being bound by the lighting plot of the resident show was freeing: instead of fretting over innumerable configurations, there was a small but functional selection. After these cursory routines and a cue-to-cue tech (plus a revivifying trip to Cafe Nero), the dress rehearsal and performance followed.

The performance itself was an odd experience. At the Golden Fleece, matters had been similarly variable. On the Wednesday, I felt I’d given a solid performance. But it was tempered with an unease I’d never before felt in the one-man form. Nothing seemed quite right. The stage was too bright, the audience too close, my performance hysterical rather than impassioned. Uncharacteristically, I was also forgetting my lines. On the Friday, everything improved drastically. The vital point was remembering to keep the window open; the stifling heat common to all British pubs had moistened me sooner than usual. The result was a more controlled performance. (I think having my old English teacher in the audience – the great man who’d cast me as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, thereby getting me hooked on Dickens – gave my psyche an extra positive boost.)

The vital point I’d overlooked at the Tristan Bates was the need for a dress rehearsal. This meant performing the play twice in the space of two hours. I went through the dress rehearsal at roughly seventy-five percent; I wasn’t prepared to tear myself to pieces too soon. But this first run had an undoubted effect on the second. My voice was fully warmed-up and humming from the get-go, as only a full-fledged performance will accomplish. Diction, tone, projection – all came without unnecessary strain. I was also less weary by the climax. Another bonus; in being energised by that first run, I’d hit upon a way of pacing myself better. But I did find that the more high-intensity sections – especially Nancy pleading for her life and Dickens’s transcendent, light-struck cityscape (vomiting up air by that point) – became a much taller order, vocally. There was also an unpleasant hoarseness in some of Nancy’s dialogue, which thankfully went away. If ever Sikes & Nancy does a run of more than three performances (and there’s a chance of that, before year’s end…) I’ll have to marshal my resources with much greater care.

Overall, though, the performance went very well. There was much more laughter at Morris Bolter than previously. The revival has acquainted me with a weird phenomenon: scripted lines that generate unerring approval. Bolter’s ‘I can do that pretty well!’ in response to Fagin’s ‘It’s only to dodge a woman’ seems a particular winner. Exactly why I can’t say; perhaps it sounds unduly perverted. Fagin’s interrogation of Bolter – in the dread-company of Bill Sikes – also garnered a volume of laughter that took me by surprise. The James Swanton of three years ago might have been stung by this. Whilst appearing in Pericles in 2009, I developed a terrible case of stage fright, after one of my character’s lines (a petulant ‘Heavens forgive it!’) generated unexpected laughter. And a few months before, I’d been appalled when all of my lines in Scarlet Petals Underfoot generated wild and uninhibited laughter. Neither play was an out-and-out comedy. One was fantastical romance; the other was ironic Gothic. But Kenneth Williams had it right: comedy and tragedy really are two sides of the same coin. This is largely due to my experiences in Cambridge: people such as George Potts (his sublime Friar Laurence) and productions such as Babushka (in short, productions bearing the Andy Brock approach). Matilda did a good line in this as well; I was weeping pretty solidly throughout. And yes, I know: it’s a truth so banal that it hardly bears repeating. Yet I’ve found it such a hard-won realization in practice – believing that you’re being laughed with, as well as (inevitably!) at – that this was an especially good experience. The lunacy of Bolter accentuating the tragedy of Nancy. I’m glad that came out more, and without overbalancing the point.

Other aspects of the show felt newly revealed as well. Vocal issues aside, much of Nancy’s interview by the river flowed freely and easily. Without overthinking it either – perhaps a little of what David Mamet meant when he discussed the actor speaking out ‘even though afraid’. (Not that I have much time for Mamet’s conception of the actor – or rather, a very particular type of actor – as heroic.) There were a series of images that came more vividly than usual: I think particularly of Brownlow’s deluded, finger-wagging bombast and the pestilential slitherings of Fagin (a character much better suited to a theatre than a small-scale venue).

Best of all were those in attendance. I owe them my deepest thanks. Especially memorable was the sight of Will Seaward sneaking in thirty seconds late. Not the least conspicuous latecomer. But far from being distracted, I felt my heart lift; instantly, I knew that the hour to come would be so much easier. (Seaward is currently playing Ross in The Elephant Man, a play I’ve much affection for. In the David Lynch film, the equivalent role is played by Freddie Jones – whose mantle Seaward is so majestically inheriting.) The Senior Treasurer of the Marlowe Society, Tim Cribb, was also kind enough to come. He told a priceless anecdote about his undergraduate pursuit of F. R. Leavis, frantically cycling away from him, each of them shouting out competing academic theories on Dickens. (Leavis had read from the death of Paul Dombey in a lecture, and unexpectedly claimed it to be as great a passage as he knew in literature. This must have happened before Leavis publicly reversed his position on Dickens with Dickens the Novelist in 1970.)

It was as I peeled strips of Dracula cloak from various different chairs that I was asked the following:

‘Did you see Simon Callow sitting at the back?’


No. No, I hadn’t.

Simon Callow really had been in the audience. I’d written to him some months ago, but hardly expected him to come. Well, now he had. A very, very great honour. Bear in mind that only two years ago, I was able to write a wildly enthusiastic blog about Callow, on the strength of having spoken to him for roughly thirty seconds. Two years on, I’ve not only interviewed my hero (for thirty minutes this time), but I’ve performed a one-man Dickens play for him. Utterly the wrong way round: him watching me. It’s fortunate that I only discovered Callow had been there afterwards. The knowledge of the same might have overbalanced me!

Before I sign off, I’ll offer up my programme notes for Sikes & Nancy. Some of it’s a repetition of material found elsewhere on this blog. But I prefer to think of it as a distillation:

Macbeth, I.II.i)

As a boy, Charles Dickens was greatly affected by a performance of Macbeth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘Sikes and Nancy’. Drawn from his second novel, Oliver Twist (1838), this 1869 Public Reading was one of Dickens’s last theatrical endeavours: a macabre and pitiless maelstrom of light and dark, guilt and ghosts – and the all-encompassing bloodiness at its centre.

That Dickens saw ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as high tragedy is clear in the compassion with which he draws the character of Nancy. This depiction may also bear the mark of Dickens’s ground-breaking involvement in Urania Cottage, a reform home for prostitutes. In vivid contrast are the caricatured phantoms of Bill Sikes and Fagin: a fairytale ogre and a fawning Mystery Play devil. Yet Dickens never lets us forget the tears behind the wax. Part of the brilliance of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is that it exposes how pathetic these monsters are when brought low. As in A Rake’s Progress by Hogarth, the thrill of peering into a criminal underworld never obscures the fall. Dickens suggests as much in the novel: ‘Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep…’

‘Sikes and Nancy’ is replete with surprises. There are unfamiliar characters, such as Morris Bolter – since replaced in the public consciousness by the rather more glamorous figure of the Artful Dodger. That the saintly Oliver Twist makes no appearance is a sweet relief, and perhaps confirms where Dickens’s narrative interests really lay. For audiences better acquainted with the Lionel Bart musical, ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is also, inevitably, an instruction in the darkness of the novel. Dickens’s own performances were infamous, giving vent to some vague demonic obsession. During the Reading, Dickens’s pulse typically rose from 72 to 124. Afterwards, he would lie on a sofa, unable to even speak. The strain was the likely cause of the strokes that finished him off in 1870. Two days before his death, Dickens was again found performing ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – in the gardens of his country house. It can be considered a haunted text.

In the past, I’ve performed Sikes & Nancy at Cambridge’s Corpus Playroom and the Golden Fleece Inn, York’s most haunted pub. It’s my third one-man play, after my recreation of Dickens’s more light-hearted Readings (Pickwick & Nickleby) and an outing as Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Sikes & Nancy strikes a balance between the two. It is both high-colour grotesquerie and full Gothic horror. It is also, unashamedly, melodrama. This performance style, in which each emotional impulse is externalised and heightened, is one that deserves serious revival.

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