The name “Charles Dickens” tends to conjure images of books that need a good dusting: perhaps a yellowed tome shoved into a library crevice, or an untouched brick of pages on a high shelf as a living room decoration. The text of the dramatic adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby,” written by David Edgar in 1980, has long been long untouched as well—until now.
At a time when theaters are, ahem, dramatically scaling back and even closing down, the Lyric Stage Company presents “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” a rollicking adaptation of the Dickens tale featuring a cast of 24 actors in 150 different roles. This nearly Broadway-sized cast inhabits the cozy Lyric Stage with quick, careful flurry of dialogue, costume changes and impressive character turns. The production has more than been dusted off; the pure theatricality of “Nicholas Nickleby” makes it a unique offering in the Boston theater scene.
It truly is an ensemble piece—so much that pinpointing a favorite character among the talented cast, including many Boston A-listers, may be as difficult as figuring out who played who in the previous scene, not that that matters. Only five actors played one character, among them Will Lyman formidably portraying Ralph Nickleby, the icy benefactor of his dead brother’s family. Jack Cutmore-Scott makes a fitting Nicholas, what with his English-schoolboy good looks, and Elizabeth A. Rimar plays his sister Kate with great composure.
The sheer magnitude of the original novel, which runs about 800 pages, must have provided an incredible challenge for the playwright as well as for the director, Spiro Veloudos, Artistic Director of the Lyric Stage. This six-hour production, shown in two parts, is actually the reduced version of the original, which ran for eight hours total. The compression of such a work necessitates narration techniques that at best had the cast seamlessly spouting lines in an enveloping chorus, and at worst could feel awkward and forced. For example, Kate does not cry miserably when Nicholas must go away to the countryside to teach at Mr. Squeers’ despicable school for boys; she says, “Kate cried most miserably upon Nicholas’ departure,” or something to that effect.
Anyone who has seen or read “A Christmas Carol” or “David Copperfield” or “Oliver Twist” or any Dickens work knows that the characters are not terribly complex. They are easily swayed into angelic good or overblown evil by the tiniest action or reaction. The Nickleby siblings are infallibly noble, and the villains are and always will be villainous. Most of the production’s tension comes from just not being able to expect which character the actors will transform themselves into next. What we are watching is literally a series of adventures that reads like a Dickens novel.
However, the reason we all love Dickens’ work is hardly its subtlety. We love it for the characters and the adventure, and the Lyric Stage certainly gives us both. Seeing Part One on Saturday night and Part Two at a Sunday matinee surely makes for one of Boston’s most escapist weekends.
“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” parts I and II, are playing in rotating repertory at the Lyric Stage through December 19.