Review: Miriam Margolyes - Dickens' Women

By Lee Levitt, August 24, 2012
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Scrunching up her face as the tipsy, unsteady Mrs Gamp from "Martin Chuzzlewit", and picked out in an austere light on a huge, hard, black chair at the back of the stage as the steely Mrs Pipchin from "Dombey and Son", Miriam Margolyes has lost none of her relish for the works of Charles Dickens.

Though just in case there is any doubt, she lays her heart bare from the outset: "That was Sarah Gamp from "Martin Chuzzlewit", and I am Miriam Margolyes from Clapham. I have had a passion for Dickens all my life," she tells the packed audience in one of the Fringe's biggest venues.

The 71-year-old Bafta award-winner slips easily from one character to another in a lusty depiction of more than 20 of Dickens's creations as she reprises her Olivier-nominated production - which premiered in Edinburgh in 1989 - to celebrate the bicentenary of the author's birth as part of a year-long world tour.

The finely crafted, well-buffed show, in which she is accompanied onstage by the pianist Benjamin Lee, is a warts-and-all celebration of Dickens's life and works, with the Oxford-born Margolyes enthusiastically linking her reincarnations of some of the author's best-loved characters like an instructive 1950s schoolmistress.

Taking us through his impoverished upbringing, his rejection in love, his rise from a parliamentary reporter to a celebrity author and his unhappy marriage to Catherine Hogarth, who bore him 10 children, it slickly illustrates how the many women in his life - and there is a nice riff on his fixation with 17-year-old girls, accompanied by some fanciful piano music - "fuelled" the women in his works.

But more than that, it debunks the popular view of Dickens as a jolly, avuncular figure, replacing it with a more fleshed-out portrayal of a man tormented by demons, rooted in the hardships and humiliations of a childhood in which he was forced to leave school aged 12 to work in a shoe-blacking factory after his feckless father, John Dickens, was arrested for debt and consigned to the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison.

There are some intriguing little nuggets, such as the fact that Dickens - a copy of whose velvet-covered reading stand graces the stage - made more money from his transatlantic readings than he did out of his writings.

Among Margolyes' vibrant portayals are the exquisitely silly, fluttering Flora Finching, from "Little Dorrit", based on Dickens's first love, Maria Beadnell, whom he met again after she had gone to seed; the tormented, sinisterly lit "lesbian" Miss Wade, from the same novel; and the delicated-voiced Mrs Micawber (his mother) from "David Copperfield".

Several of Dickens's men also get a look-in, including the distinguished Mr Bumble, from "Oliver Twist", whom Margolyes depicts sidling up to a bashful Mrs Corney around her fireplace with the delicacy of a walrus. "I love doing that," says Margolyes. "Sexual greed and economic greed in the same scene." A treat!

Pleasance Courtyard, until Aug 25

    Last updated: 11:42am, August 24 2012