If I’m honest, when I heard about Creation Theatre Company’s project to make Bleak House, a thousand-word Victorian tome, into a musical, I was pretty sceptical. For many, the novel is thought to be Dicken’s best, an exploration of complex relationships between a whole host of memorable characters that provides a searing attack on superficial charitable ventures as well as an exposure of the complicated structures of the legal system. Bleak House centres around a strong and complex heroine (a welcome change from the bulk of Dickens’s works) called Esther Summerson, and her relationships with the women in her life. Creation Theatre Company’s adaptation of the novel is fantastic and captures the real core of the work through its playfulness, tragi-comedy and terrible melancholy.
Perched on step ladders and shelves of philosophy books, the cast of five actors mill around casually before the show starts. The play is performed in the beautiful Norrington Room, the subterranean floor of Blackwell’s stuffed full of three miles of books, a setting which the company employ to their full advantage with their artful use of paper as a motif. The production occurs within unstable boundaries; set in the round, members of the audience survey one other across the raised empty stage, bringing a kind of intimacy to the show. There is a deliberate imperfection to the production which makes the work seem as if it is still in the process of formulation, a theatre-style effectively capturing Dickens’s playful writing style. Various absurd props are used to demark character change (as each actor plays upwards of four different roles) the talent of the actors striking as they don a tea-cosy or a skirt made of aprons they seem to entirely change their movements and mannerisms, giving the impression of the chaotic coming and going of scores and scores of characters. Of the five actors, it is hard to choose between a standout performance, but Eleanor House (who plays Ada, Mr. Guppy, and Mademoiselle Hortens, among others) deserves special mention for her beautiful singing voice and sheer range of characters portrayed.
The staging of the play is also honestly genius, meticulously centred around a sustained motif of paper, which, while being an important part of Dickens’s work, is foregrounded in the stage production to intelligently show direct engagement with the movement in form from novel to musical. Leaves of written-upon paper become anything in the production; stacks are thrown into the air to serve as fog, paper suffocates the claustrophobic office where the litigation over a key legal case occurs, and it is moulded into makeshift birds which hover around the garden. It even is central to the costume design; the actors’ ruffled shirts are printed like the pages of a novel and as Richard Carstone becomes obsessively fixated with the legal case his waistcoat bristles with wads of crumpled pages.
The play is very, very funny. Particular highlights include the fantastic performance by Eleanor House as Mademoiselle Hortens, a slightly neurotic French maid who intersperses her dialogue with slivers of GCSE French phrases (“Où est la piscine… J’aime bien le sport) and the charitable ventures of Mrs Pardiggle, played by Bart Lambert. Amongst the exceptionally funny moments, however, the play maintains the book’s cutting criticism both of superficial charity and the ruinous legal system, as well as the deep melancholy of Esther’s guardian Mr John Jarndyce.
Bleak House is a musical, but don’t expect an all-singing and all-dancing ensemble, much like other Creation Theatre Company productions the production is stripped back to a small cast and songs are often performed off stage and out of sight, with little accompaniment short of one of the actors playing the violin. The songs are, however, beautiful; in the days following the show I mourned the lack of recordings as the music replayed in my mind.
Admittedly, having become habituated to student production prices, the tickets do seem expensive at £22-27, but the production is memorable and beautifully crafted, providing the audience with an evening of rich and magic story-telling.
Bleak House is on in the Blackwell’s Norrington Room until the 6th of March.