On 26 March 1858 Charles Dickens gave a reading of his Christmas Carol in the Music Hall, George Street. Now, just further along the street, he is back. It seems at first an all too brief return as he staggers laboriously on stage and dies, but (like Utton’s portrayal of Chaplin) this is a story to be told from beyond the grave.
He settles down in an armchair, brandy and water to hand, to tell us in almost forensic detail of his death. Description was very important he tells us, “I wanted you to feel that you were there”. He is looking back on the best part of his life, the last fifteen years. It’s a tale not told in strict chronological order but with garrulous flitting back and forward as we piece together what was important to him, his influences, fears, hates and loves.
Standing behind a lectern he prepares to give public readings from his works. He wants to commune and share with the public, to offer us a host of perpetual friends in the characters that he has carefully crafted to have inner lives. In return the audience offers the adulation and love that he never received as a child.
Autobiographical sections are interspersed with “readings” from Martin Chuzzlewit, The Pipwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Utton illustrates how these would have been delivered “with great brilliance” and sensationally received, invoking hysteria. Men wept, women fainted. Dickens comes to life – not as a dusty Scrooge-like figure but as a daring, vivacious, flamboyant reformer from a glorious age “creating light out of darkness”. Threaded throughout his life are his loves. Wife Catherine (and possibly her sisters) and his beloved Nell (actress Ellen Ternan).
Dickens asks us to remember him as changing for the better the life of the forgotten poor and disadvantaged - “Keep it going for me”. Perhaps he would be pleased to known that the current coalition Government’s plans have been described as condemning “thousands of children and young people to a future of Dickensian education.”
A masterful performance, the name of the show says it all, “Pip Utton is Charles Dickens”. This new play may lack some of the punch of his earlier works but to be fair it doesn’t need any theatrical devices to highlight its relevance to modern society.
In 1858 Dickens said “coming back to Edinburgh is to me like coming home”. Welcome home. If you missed seeing him the last time you now have a second chance.
Pip Utton is something of a Fringe institution. I saw him doing Adolf at my first Fringe in 1999 and was blown away. How exciting then to see him 11 years on portraying Dickens with such insight and flair.
Pip Utton is Charles Dickens does exactly what it says on the tin. Dickens is brought to life in this one man show, discussing his thoughts about social injustice, love, money and worth and performing extracts from his novels.
Pip Utton is such a solid beautiful actor that the audience are totally at ease with him. He is Dickens very completely but also has an authorial voice. He talks about television, about how different our times are, he even talks about his own death. This is a lovely conceit that only made the piece richer. Utton draws the audience in immediately. You are very carefully looked at in the eye, you are told that you are part of a group of learned friends and it feels quite true. We are invited to participate; intellectually. The audience are not being spoken at but spoken to. Utton has this rare talent of feeling casual, informal, real inside his characters, but every moment is beautifully crafted. Nor is he afraid of stepping outside of his well made play to comment on his inability to fasten his waistcoat.
Utton slips in and out of characters with ease as he portrays the parts of Dickens’ characters during the readings with accomplished gesture, authentic voice and tight snaps between parts. He layers character on top of character; as Dickens playing Bill Sykes among others.
The writing is honest and engaging with some real thinking points about the nature of humanity. For those with little knowledge of Dickens the show is engaging enough in itself to encourage newcomers to his work. If you find Dickens depressing, it is refreshing and joyous to have your preconceptions changed by Dickens himself. He illustrates how his work drew attention to the horrors of his age and played a part in bringing them to an end.
The set is minimal, separated into an armchair for Dickens’ intimate confessions and a lectern where he reads his work – his public face. The costume changes underline stages in his professional development and provide a visual separation to the chapters of the piece.
I not only thoroughly enjoyed the show, but also feel as though I have learned a lot about not only Dickens but life in his time and the changing of social norms. I was moved and enthralled and I believe that the whole room was with me on this. At the end of the show, Dickens recommends reading a chapter of one of his books every week, in the way it was first serialised. After Pip Utton breathing new life into his work; I think I will.
With Utton’s potent audience connection, with both clarity and depth in the writing, with real emotional tangibility in the performance and the feeling that I have now met with Dickens, I would recommend this outstanding piece of theatre to anyone looking for good drama at the Fringe. It has been said before and I will say it again that there is one man for the one man show and that is Pip Utton.
The 'is' in that title is nice because it builds on one of veteran monologist Utton's unique strengths, the ability to find something in himself that connects to the character he plays and brings him alive from the inside. Here it's Utton's signature ability to make scripted material sound off-the-cuff, a quality that allows his Dickens to chat informally with us, breaking through the formal image of schoolbook portraits. Utton's Dickens tells us, with the casual candour of one with nothing to lose, why the last fifteen years of his life were the happiest. His personal life, however unorthodox, was finally shaped to fit his taste - he was separated from the wife he hated and estranged from the children he disdained, free to enjoy the platonic companionship of his sister-in-law and to indulge in the old man's prerogative of doting on a young actress. And he discovered his highly satisfying second career, as a public reader of his own works. This account allows Utton to be in turn confessional, angry, delighted, wistful and above all contented, while interrupting the conversation every once in a while for sample readings as histrionic and hammy as Dickens (and the actor playing him) could wish. Pip Utton has more than a dozen monologues in his repertoire, but if he wants to he can tour and entertain audiences with this show for the rest of his life. Gerald Berkowitz
Through Pip Utton’s Charles Dickens the audience gains a lot of information about the famous author without feeling lectured. With dry wit and detail worthy of his subject, Utton delivers – from dramatic entry to deserved closing ovation (and with plenty of applause throughout) – a portrait of a man both humble and full of his own greatness, someone passionate and compassionate, a writer who is a performer and who poured great energy and life into his final years, gleefully reaping financial rewards along the way.
On a small stage sumptuously furnished with much red velvet, in intimate lighting helped by a fine candelabra, Dickens the man and Dickens the performer meld and draw the audience along with anecdotes biographical and the reading of excerpts of works and ‘little pieces’. Pip Utton is a master of the solo production and uses little tricks to gain applause and work on the warmth and emotional colour of the audience, but this is all done with ease and everyone’s willing collaboration. When we hear Dickens say that sometimes he can’t remember the right words or names, there is a real sense of connection between character and actor. We are invited to revel as much in the frailties of those we watch as in their achievements.
Pip Utton is Charles Dickens provides entertainment, information and moving emotional catharsis – along with a few amusing insights into friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins – and if there is sometimes a slight pulling back and distance to the performer‘s energy, there is great passion as well. This reviewer was likely not the only one wondering at the end if it might be possible to fit in at least one other of Mr Utton’s three Fringe 2011 productions.
Charles Dickens on tour preparing to give a reading, railing against social injustice, fearing death, craving love and praise, enjoying the fame and adulation.
When the greatest writer of his generation was laid to rest in June 1870 he left behind instructions that no public subscription should be opened for the commission of a bronze statue. He also insisted that for brevity’s sake his coffin should be inscribed simply with the legend “Charles Dickens”. The author of such classics as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield wanted his writtings to form his lasting monument. He need not have been so effusive. The single word Dickens calls to every literary mind a stifling landscape hung with fog populated by the very best and very worst of humankind. But as Pip Utton in his part biopic, part tribute one man show is keen to point out Dickens’ unofficial motto was ever “make it brighter”.
Focusing on the final 12 years of the great writer’s life, Utton’s approach to Dickens illustrates his subject as among the most effective advocates for social progress and material improvement. Dickens was the man who best urged London’s development out of 18th century squalor by documenting it – the result in part being that grinding urban poverty shall forever (somewhat inaccurately) be described as Dickensian. Pip Utton is Charles Dickes is a hugely optimistic piece of theatre. It not only eulogizes a preeminent literary colossus but also provides a gentle reminder that this giant was also a much cherished humorist who urged the need for progress without resort to either fire or brimstone.
Utton represents Dickens during his twilight. Dickens spent his final twelve years on speaking tours which astonished capacity audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. His private life was spent in company with the beautiful young actress Ellen Ternan, his beloved muse and confident. This is a happy and contented Dickens with whom it is a pleasure to spend all too short a time.
Pip Utton is a Fringe heavyweight. This year alone he is appearing in no less than three separate solo bouts: Pip Utton is (not only) Dickens but he is also the Hunchback of Notre Dame and in between he treads the boards as Adolf. If any hint of tiredness was in evidence in Utton’s performance it was masterfully conquered and only added an energetic but also authentic portrait of the artist as an old man. The audience were beautifully engaged and charmed. The recitals of classic Dickens were superlative examples of what a master craftsman can do with material of a stellar standard.
The stage employed a combination of furniture from the lecture hall and private study giving a sense of intimacy but with a man adored by thousands. The only stumble was perhaps the use of canned applause in prelude to the recitals. Another sound cue might also have shifted the scene into the crowded public arenas which Dickens made his own.
If the rumors that Utton intends to return next year in the guise of Churchill prove accurate, then Fringe 2012 is in for treat. My hope is that Utton will explore Churchill the Nobel-prize winner for literature and render some of the great man’s histories and journalism with the same skill as he did for Dickens rather than focusing exclusively on the war leader. Though this actor is capable of some seriously heavy lifting, I would also suggest that Utton does not expend too much of his energy illuminating Churchill the amateur bricklayer.
Pip Utton is a storyteller who can keep an audience spellbound with his skills to inform, amuse and move. His style in his portrayal of Dickens is conversational and witty. He opens with Dickens’ death in 1870 but not in a melodramatic way – twice as it happened for the benefit of a couple of latecomers.
He concentrates on the final 12 years of Dickens’ life which turned out to be his happiest years. Two events occurred which brought this about. Firstly, he met Nell, a young and attractive actress who became his ‘female friend’, a euphemism for mistress. Secondly, he discovered after carrying out a book reading in Birmingham that he could make substantial sums of money by touring Britain, and subsequently America, reading extracts from his novels. With 10 children and an extended family to support, supplementing his income was vital.
Pip Utton brings out Dickens’ humanity and why his novels made such an impact during his lifetime and why they continue to be important to this day. The recent Hollywood version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ springs immediately to mind and how Dickens would have relished the share of the revenues were he alive today.
A selection of readings is performed. There included the amusing courtroom scene involving Sam Weller from ‘Pickwick Papers’. This contrasted with the sombre description of the brutal murder perpetrated by Bill Sykes from ‘Oliver Twist’.
A measure of the success of any performer is does the audience want more. Even after giving a 75 minute performance, I had the feeling the audience would have gladly stayed for more readings, such was their enjoyment and, indeed, mine also.
Since performing his acclaimed one-man show Adolf in 1997, Pip Utton has brought life to an array of literary and historical characters on stage. In this work, he's set himself the not inconsiderable challenge of resurrecting one of the greatest novelists ever to have lived: Charles Dickens.
Utton’s passionate and energetic portrayal of Dickens is every bit as engaging as the characters contained within his books. It is clear from the outset that Utton has done a significant amount of research for the role. Far from being a sombre Victorian figure, Utton’s Dickens declares his undying love for his mistress and undying loathing for his wife. The figure Utton has created is most definitely grounded in reality and conveys both Dickens' social conscience and his business mind.
Beginning with his death—because in Utton’s own words "we don’t want it hanging over us for the rest of the performance"—he then gives a condensed version of the author’s final 12 years, interspersed with impassioned readings taken from his novels that are performed as if in front of a Victorian audience. Particularly harrowing is the highly charged delivery of the brutal murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, a scene etched into the mind of anyone familiar with Oliver Twist.
Utton is a charismatic performer who captivates his audience. At the end of the show, you feel that you have encountered both a literary legend and a talented actor who is more than capable of transforming himself into any character he wishes.