"Nicholas Nickleby" was the theater news last week. It sailed into the Ahmanson on Sunday and absolutely took the harbor. Standing ovations have become a standing joke in Los Angeles theater, but how often do you hear people exulting about a show on the way out the door as if they just pulled off the daily double?
This, after 8 1/2 hours of sitting in the theater. That explains part of the jubilation, of course. We made it! But truth to tell, there was less of that at the Ahmanson than there had been at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre when the Royal Shakespeare Company had first brought "Nicholas" to the United States in 1981.
At the Plymouth, the show had the aspect of a feat, pleasurable but somewhat grueling. At the Ahmanson, it was the equivalent of the book that you can't put down, no matter how late it is getting.
"Nicholas" is based on a book, and much has had to be left out. But an incredible amount has been left in. Compare Ketti Frings' dramatization of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward Angel," recently revived at the Pasadena Playhouse. The plot was nodded at and the major characters were dealt with, but the scale that Wolfe was working to was lost.
In contrast, David Edgar's adaptation of "Nicholas" has time to explore the crooked alleys of Dickens' novel, to follow characters not necessarily crucial to the central action. We come out feeling, like Nicholas, that we have seen the world.
It's not the world of 1986, in costume or manners or morals. Young people today aren't as naive as Nicholas and his sister Kate (Michael Siberry and DeNica Fairman at the Ahmanson). Rich men aren't as hard-hearted as their uncle, Ralph Nickleby (John Carlisle). Unmarried women of a certain age aren't as dotty as Miss La Creevy (Eve Pearce).
Or maybe we just mask our impulses better. It could be that inside every modern man and woman there's a Dickens character trying to get out. Anyway, his people seem oddly recognizable, for all their strangeness. If they're not real as characters, they're certainly convincing as characteristics . And they are astonishingly frank about stating their business.
Consider Wackford Squeers, the one-eyed schoolmaster (David Delve). A repulsive man. Today he'd be called a child-abuser. Still, one has to smile as Squeers informs Nicholas that he might as well stop referring to Squeers' boys' school as a "hall" now that they are in the country. " 'Cos the fact is, it ain't a hall. We call it a hall up in London, because it sounds better, but they don't know it by that name here."
A villain who knows his mind is welcome on any stage, and the bad people in "Nicholas" are committed to being bad. Happily, the good people are just as dedicated and just as energetic. The Cheeryble Brothers (Hubert Rees and Timothy Kightley) suggest an entity so bursting with benevolence that it has been forced to turn into twins.
Or take Nicholas' second employer, that well-known man of the theater, Mr. Vincent Crummles (Tony Jay). His acting may be a little florid, but here is a man of true feeling.
Then there is his admirable consort, Mrs. Vincent Crummles (Pat Keen), who rules their little acting troupe as Brittania does the waves--one of her favorite parts, actually. The pageant that follows the Crummles' version of "Romeo and Juliet" (and closes Part 1 of "Nicholas") would amuse even dear Victoria.
Eight hours or so in the company of such characters is not hard to take. But having seen "Nicholas" twice before in the theater, and twice on television, this reviewer did wonder if the bloom wouldn't be somewhat off the rose.
In fact, the show struck me as more amusing, stirring, touching and life-enhancing than ever before. Why? The first reason may relate to a theory held by a man who had watched theater audiences from the lip of the orchestra pit for 40 years, the late Lehman Engel.
It was Engel's belief that novelty and suspense were overrated in the theater. He felt that the stories we love best are the ones where we roughly know what's going to happen. The fun is to see it all happen again, while noticing details we had missed before.
So, with "Nicholas," the better you know the road, the more you can appreciate the scenery.
"Nicholas" doesn't have any scenery, of course. John Napier's set is an iron-faced frame, a machine for actors to do a show on. But watch those props. Two buckets of "snow" and we're on the road to Dotheboys Hall with Nicholas and Squeers. A drooping house plant gives us the sickroom of Mrs. Wititterley, poor flower (Karen Archer).
The company might almost be improvising "Nicholas" using some scraps of stuff that they happen to have backstage. And just as the actors are constantly changing identities (32 actors for 150 roles), so are the props.