Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

David Copperfield
by  Charles Dickens adapted by Nick Warburton   directed by Colin Lawrence

The ADC Theatre, Cambridge, December 2007

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Three Reviews of David Copperfield
by Alan Bond, Rachel Fentem (Local Secrets) & Mandy Morton (BBC Radio Cambridgeshire)

Bawds and Combined Actors of Cambridge are both companies with years of experience and both enjoy justifiably high reputations; therefore when they join together to present a major production one can expect great things.  As Charles Dickens is synonymous with Christmas and David Copperfield one of Dickens' most popular books this was a good choice for the run-up to the festive season.  Adapted by local author and award winning playwright Nick Warburton there was no doubt this adaptation was in safe hands.  So often when Dickens' work is adapted it doesn't stay true to the book: the recent television play of Oliver Twist being a case in point.  However there were no such worries with Mr Warburton's version of David Copperfield. Written as a weekly serial the style was necessarily episodic yet no short cuts had been used, no liberties taken and all one's favourite characters were included.
 
Director Colin Lawrence's imaginative approach to the text worked well with some clever and amusing touches (i.e. turning the settle into Barkis's cart).  Tony Broscomb's set backing up the director's approach gave many interesting levels and nooks and crannies that were used to great effect.  Of course, however good the director's approach it would be nothing without the back up of the actors and here Mr Lawrence had amassed what can only be described as 'an all star cast'. 

There were two David Copperfields; the story being narrated by the grown-up David (Colin Richardson) with Young Davy played by Peter Sayer. Both of these actors gave impressive performances and one looks forward to seeing more of them in the future.  They certainly deserved their curtain call acclaim.  With two Davids there were of course two Steerforths, and two Emilys.  Here again good performances from Josh Warren as the potentially obnoxious young Steerforth with Mark Bak following through as the adult Steerforth more than fulfilling the promise.  Lovell Jones was very impressive as the young Emily showing considerable potential as an actress, with Kayleigh Orrock making much of her tiny role as the adult Emily; another up and coming young actress. Most of these actors were new faces to me but I am sure we will see them often in the future.

 The play got off to a good start with the birth of Davy in the safe hands of  Lindsey McAuley as Clara and the redoubtable Mandi Cattell as Peggotty.  Miss Cattell was excellent giving a very moving characterisation of the faithful servant.  There was great empathy with her mistress and genuine emotion in her role depicting her love of young Davy. Indeed, the scene portraying the death of Barkis was very moving.   The role of Barkis was amusingly handled by Mike Milne.  A good piece of casting with this pairing: the cart journeys were marvellous.

 Other cast pairings were also inspirational.  David Foyle as Edward Murdstone was cruel and vicious whilst Suzanne Jones as Jane Murdstone can only be described as terrifying. Then we had the 'umble Heeps.  Guy Holmes was excellent as Uriah, his ever moving limbs creating a very uncomfortable aura, wasn't sure about the dragging limb though.  Brenda Cottis as Mrs Heep was a good foil for the creepy Uriah a very believable mother and son! Rosemary Eason gave life to Betsey Trotwood in just the way Dickens intended; crusty exterior with a soft heart - except when it came to donkeys.  Clive Young as her strange companion and advisor Mr Dick was splendid; the audience took him to their hearts.  An excellent characterisation. 
 
 Speaking of excellent characterisations the piece de resistance was Barry Brown's Wilkins Micawber.  Mr Brown rang every ounce of humour from this character.  One went away hoping he would be successful teaching the natives cricket in Australia.  A memorable performance.  He was ably aided and abetted by Cathy McCluskey as Mrs Micawber who was not overshadowed by her partner in the slightest.

Added to all this were fine performances from Ron Meadows as Daniel Peggotty sporting a very believable fisherman's beard and Thomas Mead as the love-forsaken Ham.  Maggie Hodges as Mrs Gummidge got much humour from her role and had the audience anticipating her grumbles at every entrance.  The admirable Ken Eason was believable as Mr Wickfield as he went from successful financier to drunk under the thumb of Uriah Heep.  Other performances worthy of note were Alexandra Fye as Agnes Wickfield, Louise Adams as Mrs Steerforth and Stephanie Winiecki who was impressive as the embittered Rosa Dartle.
 
With a cast of over thirty it is unfortunate that space does not allow for individual mention of those who took on the variety of ensemble roles.  Suffice it to say that they all gave good accounts of themselves supporting the main characters throughout and adding an extra something to the overall production with their commitment.  In fact this was an excellent production all round.  The costumes were appropriate; lighting was extremely effective at all times and the sound effects good if sometimes over loud. 
 
 With a superb adaptation, imaginative direction, and such a plethora of acting talent Bawds and Combined Actors ended 2007 with a production to rival anything seen in the Cambridge area this year. 

* * * * *

Bawds and Combined Actors of Cambridge have certainly made an ambitious choice in their new stage adaptation of David Copperfield: the action spans David's life from birth to marriage, and moves between numerous locations in Suffolk, Kent and London. On top of this, the book and resulting play call for a cast of thousands. We were amused to observe how many Dickensian-looking characters turned up on stage: ruddy-faced gentleman, dour-faced women, sycophantic youths and a good sprinkling of mad-professor types with wild eyes and even wilder hair. Only in Cambridge, perhaps.

The plot, in a nutshell, follows David's harsh upbringing after the death of his parents, including the obligatory Dickensian spell at a cold, gloomy school. Having run away from hard labour in London, he finds happiness in the home of his aunt, Betsey Trotwood, and after various other trials and tribulations, marries Agnes, the good and beautiful daughter of her lawyer.

Dickens' books are rarely brief, and one of the results of compression to a manageable length for stage performance is that much of the scene setting and character development is omitted. At times, this results in an endless series of arrivals and departures that verges on the comic, not to mention some rather clunky location announcements. We also lose some of the subtlety of Dickens' social commentary: the emotional development of David, morality, class and greed, though we are certainly presented with a check-list of all the main themes and issues.

That said, the delivery of the action is excellent, and I would far rather be laughing than yawning in the theatre. Adapter Nick Warburton's device of an older David "narrator" on stage (a beautifully poised Colin Richardson) to comment on the action and fill us in on any scene setting is clever and keeps everything moving along nicely. Peter Sayer deserves huge congratulation for his confident, sympathetic and thoughtful portrayal of young David; this is clearly a young man destined for theatrical success, should he so desire.

Direction and performance are uniformly professional, and great effort has been invested in small details of costume, set and props. The tale is brimming with eccentric characters, and the cast clearly relish presenting them to us. Above all, the tone of this production is eminently Dickensian: it felt just like the (albeit heavily abbreviated) book come to life on stage. It's a great, alternative Christmas show - though I had to suppress a groan at the carol singing at the end - that you would be hard pressed not to enjoy.

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There's no such thing as Christmas, certainly in England, without Charles Dickens, and Dickens' adaptations abound on both our amateur stage, our professional stage and of course on the little old box in the corner, starting up next week.  So Dickens is something we ought to think about and we went to see the first night of 'David Copperfield' last night by Combined Actors and Bawds, two of our most distinguished local amateur societies, coming together for this extraordinary production.
 
Now when it was announced I was a bit worried, and I know you were, of staging a new adaptation of David Copperfield and actually having it on only the one evening,  because it is a very big book, and it's a very complex book of Dickens.  He originally wrote it so that you could have little 'gazetteer' sections of it.  It was done in series so you could just buy a new one every month, so even he knew how big the story was! So it was with mixed feelings that we actually went along to see it.
  
I think it was a hugely ambitious thing to take on, and that is the first of many plaudits that will be coming to Bawds and Combined Actors.  I do have to say that one of the greatest things about those two companies is that they always come up with imaginative and very brave choices of material and it does make a difference because when we are lucky enough to have so many productions going on around us in this county it does make a difference when you choose something that actually stands out from the standard repertoire. 

And so the first thing to say is 'Well done' for choosing it and we weren't at all disappointed.  It was an extraordinary production, I thought.  Full credit to Nick Warburton who is one of our most well-known writers, but also on a national level as well, who has won many awards for his playwriting and also written for EastEnders.
I think that kind of episodic story-telling served him very well for 'David Copperfield'.  It was a lovely device.   It was as the book is written and as the story is meant to be told and what I think they did do very well was that although and it was just one evening's production you just get the feel of different episodes coming out and different stages in David's life.  All those wonderful characters that we know so well and love and it was a wonderful ensemble piece as well.

It was a large cast, bringing these two groups together, and they needed a large cast because one thing Dickens certainly doesn't stint on is his characters,  The book is absolutely full of different characters - some of them have major roles obviously but there are 1001 more minor characters as well and I think what Bawds and Nick Warburton very sensibly did was to pare it down to who we need and there were no disappointments.
 
 There is nobody missing that you miss but he kept it down to the central story and the characters that we know and love.  I woudn't know where to start really but the two actors who were playing David, there's Young Davy, Peter Sayer  and David Copperfield in his adult years, Colin Richardson, were just superb and they were absolutely captivating backed by a wonderful cast I think.

Suzanne Jones as the very evil Jane Murdstone made the most of very few lines and her presence on the stage was just evil and very wonderfully nasty.  Barry Brown's Mr Micawber was just a joy from start to finish I have to say.  And I think that this is classic Dickens because there is the dark and there is the light and whenever you think that everything is lost the larger than life characters come in to brighten your day and of course 'David Copperfield' abounds with these.

There are wonderful roles that you always worry about when you go and see an adaptation of Dickens and think 'Will they be OK, will they be played in the way you want them to be?'  One is Mr Dick, the ridiculous man who aids and abets Betsey Trotwood and flies the kite and actually comes up with all the sensible suggestions.  This was absolutely beautifully played by Clive Young and as you said Barry Brown and his Mr Micawber,  and Mrs Micawber indeed.   All the stuff that you would expect from that strange coupling of the Micawbers was there, bouncing around on the stage but then set that against the vileness of Uriah Heep and well done to the man who played Uriah Heep.

Absolutely and I do think we have talked about the scope of the characters, but obviously also in 'David Copperfield' there is the scope of where the action takes place.   It moves from Suffolk to Great Yarmouth to London and that was very, very cleverly done and simply done, because when you have got a cast that big you don't want to be cluttered up with loads of different stage effects as well.  But is was very well done with good sound effects for the sea and thunder storms.  There is a moment when I thought 'How on earth are they going to do that?' because there is a moment when the sea takes hold in 'David Copperfield' and there are some sad and tragic drownings and I thought 'They will never be able to do that' - and they did!  They pulled it off.  I won't spoil the magic by saying how they did it and it was very, very moving and not the slightest bit comedic which those moments very easily can be.  And with the staging and the different sound effects but it was also visually a feast because of the costumes  - the costumes and the wardrobe and the wigs were just  amazing I thought.
 
So, out of ten? Oh - let's give it fifteen.

Yes, I think we should give it fifteen.  Directed by Colin Lawrence - superb direction, stage adaptation by Nick Warburton.  Well done all - there wasn't a loose link in the whole play and we can highly recommend it. If you feel like a feel-good factor, and a cracking piece of Dickens, then go along.