Group Watch: The RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby

Wherein we discuss that most Dickensian of stage marvels and adaptations, the RSC’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Friends, several of us, as you know, are enamored of the 1982 filmed stage production of Nicholas Nickleby, and feel it is the ultimate Dickensian experience on stage or screen. So, for those who would like to watch and discuss it, please feel free to do so here, and comment below! If we have enough interest & discussion, I’ll compile a wrap-up specifically for this chat.

The DVD set is available–but very expensive–on Amazon, but it can also be viewed for free in four parts on YouTube. (Thank you for the link, Marnie!)

For those who would like to read my “love letter” to Roger Rees (whose death anniversary was yesterday, 10 July) and to this production, it can be found here.

Our Adaptation Stationmaster’s review can be found here.

Enjoy, friends! See you in the comments!

Smike and Nicholas
A “play-within-a-play”: the Crummles’ production of Romeo and Juliet–and one of the most hilarious sequences ever filmed.

14 Comments

  1. Rachel, thanks much for this invitation to participate in the watching of the truly singular RSC stage production of “Nicholas Nickelby.”

    You capture the experience of it wonderfully: “the ultimate Dickensian romp, hilarious and heartbreaking.”

    And here: “Ultimately, this joyous Bildungsroman is a love letter to the theatre itself, to friendship and family, and to the ideal of taking a hand in lifting up those who are suffering; the willingness to bring others into our family and our hearts, even if we suspect it will bring heartbreak and loss. A love letter to the ideal that love always triumphs, and that generosity of heart is always worth the cost.”

    I wasn’t aware of the love letter by his life partner of 34 years, Rick Elice, “Finding Roger: An Improbably Theatrical Love Story.” Have you read it?

    Rees embodies and “channels” Nicholas in an unforgettable way–as you note, displaying more energy as a near-40-year-old than most 19-year-olds!

    The photos–including the masthead photo of Nicholas and Noggs–are fabulous!

    Thank you!

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    1. Daniel, I’ve read myself the book that Rick Elice wrote after the death of Roger Rees. It is beautifully touching. Rees seems to have been an especially generous and kind man, as well as a talented actor. I never saw him in anything else but his credits, especially on the stage, are impressive, and of course, I will always love him for his Nicholas.

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    2. Thanks so much!!! I loved Rick’s tribute to Rog…so touching and full of poignant memories. It is kind of a compilation of things: Rick’s updates to close friends and family as they became aware of his cancer, and after Rog’s death, speeches and testimonials about Rog, etc. The pages are thick & glossy and the photos are just gorgeous. As Marnie says here, Rog seems to have been the kindest soul & gratitude was such a trademark of his character. It is beyond the normal, the way it is so entirely clear that no one–no one–could help loving him. Rest in peace ❤

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  2. The introductory narrative that starts out the play was, of course, directly from Dickens – though in a shortened version of the opening chapter. We see the whole 39 members of the company and each one has a line in the narrative. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t give us closeups of some of the most important characters – Ralph, Newman Noggs or Fanny Squeers. But it’s such a delight to see them all together. David Threlfall, who looked almost nothing like his Smike character, can be seen in one of the few quick glimpses we have of him as himself in the play, as he speaks, late in the narration, his line: “whispered the clergyman”.

    Even though Roger Rees was somewhat old for the Nicholas role – which I’m sure wasn’t noticeable in the play where the audience is at a distance from the stage and the actors on it – he had all the qualities that Nicholas should have and that we love in the character. Though older, he had a wonderful boyishness – he had amazing energy over an 8 ½ hour play for which he was on stage for most of it – and his ability to convey a forceful idealism and a tender love for his family and dear friend Smike. I find other Nicholases in other versions may be youthfully attractive but lightweight and even callow – lacking Rees’s emotional and substantive depth. And Emily Richard was a perfect, lovely Kate – she had worked with Rees previously and they obviously enjoyed working together – they made their brother and sister relationship entirely believable and touching in its tenderness.

    I love the depiction of the muffin company chapter. Any Dickens fan should be able to treasure this NN version for this scene alone, which no other version has room for. The muffin boys who roam the aisles of the theater, giving out muffins and later charging the stage in protest, aren’t in Dickens but are a delightful addition to the scene. The “Irate Gentleman” and “Angry Gentleman” (as they are named in the script and cast lists) are both in Dickens – the “Irate Gentleman” demands an amendment for crumpets and the “Angry Gentleman” (David Threlfall in a quick 5-second role that he took over from Ben Kingsley when Kingsley left) who runs across the balcony yelling “No, no, a thousand times, no”, as he runs between the two “poor women” who will play friends Fanny and Tilda.

    John Woodvine as Ralph and Edward Petherbridge as Newman Noggs are perfect – individually as their characters and together in their interchanges with each other. They have rapid-fire exchanges of lines sprinkled throughout the play and their timing is perfect, almost like a finely-tuned comedy act – while at the same time not undermining Ralph as a cold, calculating threat or Newman’s poignance. Absolutely delightful. I love whenever they’re together.

    Marnie

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  3. There are some decent Squeers in other versions but none of them strike me so forcefully as Alun Armstrong’s Squeers. He is frightening to me in a way that no other Squeers is. When he is with the boys – such as Belling early on or especially Smike later – I tremble inside for them. He is every inch a predator. It’s a powerful performance. He also has a natural, broad Yorkshire accent – he himself was from Yorkshire – and that adds to his rough brutality as he dominates and terrorizes the boys. Lila Kaye’s Mrs. Squeers, Threlfall’s Smike (Threlfall was also from the north, close to Yorkshire) and Bob Peck’s John Browdie – all had nice strong, distinctive Yorkshire accents. Most other Squeers and wives have much milder accents and other Smikes have at the most a slight accent that drifts in and out, and usually, as with Jamie Bell – none at all, closer to the more refined London accent.

    I admit that, at first, I found Threlfall’s Smike difficult to watch, and I can understand those who prefer a more conventional depiction such as Aubrey Wood’s or Jamie Bell’s which are very good. Threlfall’s performance is searingly raw and naturalistic. He’s not depicting Dickens’ Smike, but Smike as he would have been after experiencing all the years of abuse that he endured. Threlfall’s physical, mental and emotional damage was closer to reality than would have been Dickens’s relatively mild portrait. He – and other members of the company such as those who played the other Dotheboys boys – did extensive medical research on the disorders and damage that would afflict boys as a result of the terrible Yorkshire conditions at that time. According to Leon Rubin’s account of the play: “From the earlier collective research projects, from evidence in the novel about diet, and from what he himself had learnt about common diseases of the period such as rickets, [Threlfall] could envisage how Smike should move. He discovered that a protein-deficient diet causes a deficiency of calcium in the bones, so that Smike’s body would be weak all over. Later he added problems with the respiratory system and the collapsed lung and consumptive symptoms that led to his death.” Threlfall’s portrayal actually does what Dickens intended the character to do – engage our sympathy, our pity for an abused innocent – to a depth that no other portrayal does. He’s heartbreaking throughout, in scene after scene, culminating in his devastating death scene. Jim Goddard, the director of the filmed version, reported that, at the 1982 Cannes showing of the play, which would have been star-studded, “When we screened the show in Cannes, the most surprising people were in tears”. Threlfall’s Smike costume is virtually identical to the “skeleton suit” that Dickens describes in chapter 7 and in Phiz’s chapter 13 drawing where Nicholas is thrashing Squeers in the center of the scene and Smike is standing at the right side. Of course, the RSC actors were all carefully costumed according to the time and the Dickens book.

    The great Lila Kaye makes a formidable Mrs. Squeers – someone you wouldn’t want to cross. Even Squeers himself, a couple of times, looks a bit cowed by her. Her character-defining speech to Nicholas about “purifying” the boys with the brimstone-treacle is a commanding performance – sneering and mocking one moment and domineering and threatening the next. She is a force of Nature to match her husband. Add in Suzanne Bertish’s Fanny and Ian McNeice’s Young Wackford and there’s a true, not watered down, depiction of Dickens’ Squeers family in all their deliciously grotesque glory.

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    1. BEAUTIFUL reflections, Marnie!!! And just to reinforce your last points, I do love Lila Kaye. The idea that she is both Mrs Squeers and Mrs Crummles, just as Suzanne Bertish is–somehow, inconceivably–both Fanny and Peg and Miss Snevellicci, or that Bob Peck is both Sir Mulberry and our beloved John Browdie…what chameleons!

      Love this: “Threlfall’s portrayal actually does what Dickens intended the character to do – engage our sympathy, our pity for an abused innocent – to a depth that no other portrayal does. He’s heartbreaking throughout, in scene after scene, culminating in his devastating death scene. Jim Goddard, the director of the filmed version, reported that, at the 1982 Cannes showing of the play, which would have been star-studded, ‘When we screened the show in Cannes, the most surprising people were in tears’. Threlfall’s Smike costume is virtually identical to the ‘skeleton suit’ that Dickens describes in chapter 7 and in Phiz’s chapter 13 drawing where Nicholas is thrashing Squeers in the center of the scene and Smike is standing at the right side. Of course, the RSC actors were all carefully costumed according to the time and the Dickens book.”

      I had thought the same re: the skeleton suit–perfect touch. And that “Threlfall’s portrayal actually does what Dickens intended”–that PERFECTLY sums up those areas where the play makes alterations to the novel. I won’t give details, in case those reading haven’t gotten there, but on such things also as the play-within-a-play (R&J – the most hilarious scene ever) and how they pay off the lines that Nicholas and Smike have learned there, in such a heartbreakingly Perfect way; or the very end–the final tableau. It wasn’t in Dickens quite that way; but in doing it as they’ve done–just as Threlfall did with Smike–they actually FULFILL exactly what Dickens intended…making it even more Dickensian than it would have been otherwise.

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    2. Normally, I think Alun Armstrong is great, but I honestly don’t like him as Squeers that much. Maybe it’s because of what you said about him being frightening. I don’t really find Squeers intimidating in the book, though of course he’s supposed to be to the boys at the school. I just don’t find him fun to watch the way I find Squeers fun to read about. Lila Kaye is pretty great as Mrs. Squeers though.

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  4. There are some other entertaining Mantalinis out there – how could any actor not relish such a role! But my favorite – no surprise! – is John McEnery here. He handles the hysterically funny, florid speech with perfect comic ease and masterfulness. He and Thelma Whiteley make a perfect Mantalini and wife – individually and how they play off one another. Thelma Whiteley, as Madame Mantalini, has a wonderfully strong, haughty self-possession, a bearing that perfectly expresses a no-nonsense businesswoman, although one with a fatal soft spot for her husband.

    Perhaps the tensest scene in the play is that of the thrashing of Smike. The production heightened the terrible sight of this abuse in this scene by the use of a “thrashing horse”, a ladder-like structure that Smike is lifted onto and tied to. It is absolutely wrenching to see him tied to it, waiting for Squeers to strike him. Squeers only strikes him twice but it looks frighteningly real and hard, In an interview with David Edgar years after Nickleby, Edgar recalled: “He had lots of padding for when he was beaten, but we were quite worried because on occasion an enthusiastic Squeers missed. And he [Threlfall] very accurately reproduced the symptoms of rickets.” So when a Squeers missed, it must have been painful indeed. I can’t imagine it happened often but it’s hard to watch this scene and not think that Threlfall might have been tense himself, not knowing if the next strike would be accurate or miss and be painful.

    Unlike the book, where Dickens has some criticisms of the Crummles company, the RSC portrays the Crummles company in an unmitigated, joyous way – celebrating an acting company with their own acting company. And it’s infectious. The moment Vincent Crummles and his sons enter, we’re happy to see them and feel that Nicholas and Smike have finally found a good, safe, uplifting group of people to be with. Like earlier husbands and wives, the RSC had paired perfect actors for Mr. and Mrs. Crummles. Christopher Benjamin will always be Mr. Crummles to me on his own, and he and Lila Kaye are wonderful together. Hilary Townley is purely delightful as the Infant Phenomeon, Suzanne Bertish as Miss Snevellicci is beautiful this time, and a lovely love interest for Nicholas. Bertish and Roger Rees had a great chemistry together. They clearly enjoyed working with each other – even though she would lose Nicholas twice – once as Fanny and then as Miss Snevellicci. During their farewell scene, I always tear up and wish that Nicholas could have ended up with Miss Snevellicci rather than Madeline.

    For the play’s first half finale, David Edgar developed a parody of the end of Romeo and Juliet. Nineteenth century theatre companies sometimes would change the endings of Shakespeare’s tragic plays like Romeo and Juliet, and give them happy endings. So this highly skilled Shakespearean company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, performed – with joyous enthusiasm – this parody of a happy-ending Romeo and Juliet. I absolutely agree with Rach – this is one of the most deliciously, hysterically funny scenes ever – a complete delight. Then the company shifts into an old-fashioned, stirring Patriotic Song – the kind that would often come at the end of these rural 19th century performances The song was written by the play’s great musical director Stephen Oliver. It too was intended to be a parody of a patriotic song but the funny thing is – the song is so good, so catchy – and the company sings it so heartily, so jubilantly that it’s impossible not to be swept away by it. Not a snicker in sight. I used to be in choirs and can’t resist singing along every single time – carried along as it builds to a glorious conclusion. It must have earned multiple standing ovations for the first half finale.

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  5. I wish I had time to praise all 39 RSC actors but I have to mention just one more – Bob Peck is so impressive in his second major role of the play – Sir Mulberry Hawk – as he was in his earlier John Browdie. The two roles are diametrically opposite – his Browdie is strong in his benevolent character and his Hawk is strong in his malevolence. Other Hawks in other versions are just creepy and lecherous, but none of them are truly frighteningly threatening to Kate. I truly shiver and worry for Kate when she’s in the presence of this physically tall and imposing, terrifying predator. Nicholas Gecks is also impressive in a quieter way. I love how he subtly develops the Verisopht character, building him from the soft, gullible dupe of Hawk to slowly being wakened to Hawk’s pursuit and intimidation of Kate, to finally finding the depth of character dormant inside him in order to be able to stand up to and defy Hawk, and finally his tragic realization at the end of the waste of his life. A rich and moving depiction.

    The second half of the play contained more serious elements as the play started working out Dickens’ winding down of the different plotlines. Needless to say, there are wonderful scenes – one after another. The climax comes with Smike’s death. This scene again comes from David Edgar rather than Dickens – though with some Dickens’ parts and lines in it. It is so heartbreaking that it has to be seen – no description would do it justice. Just thinking back on it makes me tear up. It is devastating. The play’s finale contains much of Dickens’ end narrative – with an important, sad omission – but Edgar ends it with a coda very much in line with the social justice that meant a lot to Dickens. The scene ends beautifully with the whole company present on stage, singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – “Tidings of comfort and joy”. It’s the only touch of Christmas in the entire play and yet it psychically ties any fan of the play inexorably to Christmastime. Many fans of the play reportedly bring out this Nicholas Nickleby to watch every year at the Christmas season, probably along with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I’m one of those who now will forever be linking my Christmas season to Nicholas Nickleby and including this RSC version of Nickleby in my annual rite of films to be watched during the Christmas holidays.

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  6. This does the best job of any Nicholas Nickleby adaptation I’ve seen of portraying Verisopht. In others I’ve seen, either his redemption comes out of nowhere or he’s so obviously better than the rest of his social group that it’s not a surprise. Here he feels fully developed.

    I already wrote this in my blog post, but I felt bad that the only comment I’ve made on this was a negative one. I thought I’d mention one of this Nicholas Nickleby’s virtues.

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    1. My own feeling is that the good Lord created us all differently and so we all have different preferences. And that’s a good thing! You always have such interesting points to make. Stationmaster. I always enjoy reading them and look forward to more to come for future Dickens novels!

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      1. Well, it’s not so much that I have a problem with disliking something popular if I think the popular thing is genuinely bad. But I actually don’t think the 1982 Nicholas Nickleby is bad. I just don’t think it’s as great as it had the potential to be, given how complete and thoughtful the adaptation is.

        Something I admire about it that I didn’t mention in my blog series (it’s a spoiler) is that I like the way they adapted Madeline Bray’s “wedding” to make it more theatrical. Not that it wasn’t theatrical in the book, mind you. It was just even more so in the play. I wouldn’t necessarily say I think their version of the scene improved on the book since when I read the book, I don’t think, “this would be better if it were more like the play.” But when I watch the play, I’m not thinking, “this would be better if it were more like the book” either.

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  7. Friends, forgive my relative quietness here on what is my VERY FAVORITE piece of recorded material of ANY kind, anywhere! 🙂 (I hope you can all watch it!!!) I hope to catch up with you all, and I see this thread as being an ongoing conversation, as we’ll doubtless all be moving at a different pace. Also, Marnie, I look forward to getting your background material post up (hopefully tomorrow, before we begin Master Humphrey and The Old Curiosity Shop)!

    Besides my usual “day job” and family things, I’ve had 2 big writing deadlines in the past 2 weeks, and have been at it a little like a maniac! (Unrelated to our Dickens Club, though very Dickensian!) But…I will be back to make more comments and read all of the marvelous comments here, probably during our Master Humphrey week. 🙂

    Happy Sunday, friends!

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