Bleak House is one of Dickens’s long form serial novels, turned out in the 1850’s, telling a story about love and identity against the backdrop of a seemingly endless legal case, mired in dense fog at the Court of Chancery.
It isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice for a piece of musical theatre, but Creation Theatre are not the most obvious theatre company, and they’ve got the creative team and the raw experience to make something very special.
They’ve been lighting up the town of Oxford for decades now, making beautiful theatre in all sorts of different spaces. And for this Bleak House they’ve chosen one of my favourite places in the world. Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford.
It is after hours when we arrive but the tills are open. We are presented with 15% off vouchers as we walk in. I’m already thrilled. The shop is a treasure house of wonder bound in paper. So many books, so beautifully laid out. It feels so full of books that you can almost hear them sing. The smell of it! The feel of it! Oh I love it so. There’s nothing like a good book, and doubly so in this age of scrolling.
We descend into The Norrington Room, where a stage has been built amid the books. A little grey square of wood tricked out with trapdoors and crawl-spaces.
The last time I was here was 2012 for The Odyssey as a performer. This stage is a clear evolutionary leap from the one I knew so well, and it’s beautifully and cleverly lit by Ashley Bale. I am able to appreciate it more as well, knowing that I’m not going to have to make up a whole Homeric Odyssey for 200 strangers. Other people will be doing the hard work tonight, turning the bookladen shelves into other worlds in other times for our entertainment.
And there they are, the actors, immediately pinging out in simple but effective flexible costume skillfully organised by Ryan Dawson-Laight. Three women and two men standing around the edges of the stage, in the reflected murmur of the settling audience, screwing on their show-heads, watching the watchers wander in, adrenaline speeding up their thoughts: “have I got my plectrum oh look there’s the bishop of Oxford is the bird-book set in the right place have a good show guys God I’m a bit nervous ok so the director’s sitting over there is my fly zipped up what’s that line again”.
It begins and I’m immediately lost in it. This sprawling strange book has been crystallised beautifully by Olivia Mace, who fits everything we need in, keeping the spirit and poetry and theatrical vigor and adding a dash of mischief and a wash of music. Not content with just adapting and converting Dickens’s opus, she provides us all with songs and some tender choral moments.
Deborah Newbold’s direction encourages truth and focus so that the broader characters can ping with movement when they need to, and uses every method possible to shift and change the space and keep her audience following this complicated tale through its many changes. All the actors are playing multiple parts, aided in changes and safety by movement director Cydney Uffindel-Phillips. Frequently they’re grabbing instruments as soon as they are out of the main action of the scene and feeding back into the soundscape. When they can they keep that soundscape going, but there’s only five of them so I guess it couldn’t be a constant underscore without totally frying all of their brains. I wished there could have been, but budgets are budgets, and we all tend to have a maximum of two hands.
Eleanor House brings violin and great humour to her work, making, among others, a fantastically awkward singing prat of Mister Guppy and a delightfully funny Hortense motormouthing GSCE French. Some of my most unexpected laughs were courtesy of her choices. Joanna Holden has the job of playing the most characters, and pulls all sorts of shapes and voices out while swarming up and down the ubiquitous stepladders in boots with surprising assurance, snapping from high status to low and back again, bringing surprising humanity to Lady Dedlock. Sophie Jacob is the heart of the play with Ester, setting the tone with the opening lines, and working with such specificity and clarity that it came as a surprise to read that this is her professional debut. Offstage she brought great music as well on keyboard. Bart Lambert is still and sharp, smouldering in moments and bounding in others, veering deftly from warm to cold. And my old mate Morgan Philpott, playing a load of parts plus guitar, heartbreaking when he had to be, when the wind was in the west.
It’s easy to forget when you watch theatre how many people go into the making of it. So many people from conception to execution. This show was rumbling along in summer when I was up in Oxford doing the Tempest. The Creation Team and Olivia literally made it from nothing but an idea and now hundreds of people will come to Blackwell’s and buy lovely books and watch lovely actors and have a lovely time in Oxford from now until the 7th March. You can be one of those people!
This is a very warm hearted telling of an eccentric and wonderful novel. It moves along at great pace guided confidently by good people in a beautiful place. Catch it if you can!