"Nicholas Ii"

June 08, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

MANCHESTER, England — "I am astonished to hear this news," said Nicholas. "Going to America! You had no such thing in contemplation when I was with you."

"No," replied Crummles. "I hadn't then." --"Nicholas Nickleby"

By now they were supposed to be in America. But the Boston date fell through, leaving the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby" troupe all dressed up with nowhere to go. So a stopgap booking was arranged at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, where business has only been fair.

It's rather a letdown for the company, after the standing ovations back at Stratford and the raves from the London critics, much better than the reviews they gave the original 1980 production. ("Perhaps they didn't want to get caught out again," suggests co-director Trevor Nunn.) Then, too, most of the actors have already said their goodbys to England for the next nine months: sold their cars, rented out their flats, put their love affairs on hold. Mentally, they're in the States already. It's disconcerting to wake up and find . . . Manchester.

Ah, well, the show must go on. Today the company is performing Parts I and II of "Nicholas" back to back, keeping them in the theater until midnight. As they come through the Palace stage door, their eyes go to the callboard. Any word on car rentals in Los Angeles?

L.A.--Emerald City. Thirty-two performances at the Ahmanson Theatre (previews begin Wednesday). Not quite so prestigious as New York, perhaps, but the company also understands that it will be playing there, if the tour catches on. And why shouldn't it? Broadway only saw "Nicholas" for four or five months the first time out, and the rest of America never saw it, except on TV.

Nor have most of them ever seen America--except on TV. That's why it signed on for the tour. They plan to take the sun at Malibu, to gape at the Grand Canyon and to be witty in Manhattan penthouses. "It'll be amazin' to see parts of America and get paid for it," says John Lynch as he makes up before the show.

Lynch, 24, plays Nicholas' crippled friend Smike. He is as slight a lad in person as he seems on stage, and today he's also fighting a cold--not enough to keep him out of the show, but enough to hurt his energy. "The only time you set your performance in advance is when you're not feelin' the part well," he tells a visitor. "Like today."

Today's performance may have other problems. David Delve, who plays the greasy schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, is out with laryngitis. Understudy Colin Campbell got through last night's show all right ("Nicholas" has four permanent understudies, with everyone else also covering certain roles) but he needs more rehearsal. Assistant director Cordelia Monsey is running lines with him right now.

Then there's Jimmy Yuill, who plays young Wackford Squeers. Yuill's wife is about to have their first child back in London. This has led to many backstage phone calls during the show and one or two mad false-alarm dashes back to the city. "If something doesn't happen soon, Jimmy may use up his paternity leave," observes tour manager Michael Hyatt.

None of these situations approaches being critical, but Hyatt and stage manager Michael Townsend must keep an eye on them. "Nicholas" is an enormously intricate show to run. Its 32 actors juggle something like 130 speaking parts. If someone falls out of the cast in the middle of a performance, roles and costumes must be traded up and down the line, and a chain reaction of error could develop. It's always a relief when midnight comes.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the performance will begin in 15 minutes." The visitor goes out front and takes his seat in the beautifully refurbished Palace Theatre. It's only half full, but the ushers have put everybody downstairs and it feels like a crowd. An attentive one, too, as the show gets rolling. If Manchester audiences don't cheer, they do listen.

At the Palace, you can listen. It's a big house, but every word comes off the stage clearly, with no need for amplification. (What did British theater architects know in 1920 that American theater architects don't know today?) And these actors are worth listening to. This isn't a mail-order stock company but a genuine ensemble, cast and rehearsed to Stratford standards.

The faces are different than those of the original company, but you can see them as Dickens' characters. If Michael Siberry makes Nicholas more outgoing and hopeful than Roger Rees did, that simply underlines how much Nicholas has to learn about the world. The company tells the tale in a more black-and-white way than before, but it's still "Nicholas Nickleby," from the muffin scene to the intermission anthem. The audience streams out for the dinner break full of the play, ready for more.

But why is "Nicholas" in Manchester at all? Hadn't Nunn and co-director John Caird made a pledge on the night the original production opened on Broadway never, never to revive it?

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