It's almost as if the team at Creation Theatre enjoy giving themselves a hard time. They've untangled Dickens' Bleak House, condensed twenty-three hours of reading time into two hours of playtime, written songs and musical accompaniments and then decided to perform the finished work in the cavernous Norrington Room at Blackwell's, where all props, chairs and other equipment have to be hidden away after each show and then reconstructed again for the next. But the company carry off this outrageous feat with aplomb: this is an enthralling, magical musical that sends you out onto
The play follows Esther Summerson, an orphan with no idea of her parentage, who is kept under the strict eye of a godmother with a penchant for bible recitals. When her godmother dies suddenly, Esther is sent to live at Bleak House with her new guardian, John Jarndyce, and his young cousins
The beauty of Bleak House is in its minor characters, and the production does well to incorporate a dizzying range of them here. Astonishingly, 5 actors play 24 characters, and at first it is mind-boggling trying to keep track of each one - it is only as the play gathers momentum that one gets an inkling of the links that join them. All the cast are brilliantly chameleonic, devoting as much skill to their secondary characters as their principal roles: Eleanor House becomes Hortense, the French maid, menacingly uttering jumbled oral exam answers ("J'habite dans la piscine"), while Bart Lambert flits between the nasal delivery of poor urchin Jo, the curled lip of Mr Tulkinghorn and the comic sneer of Mrs Pardiggle.
Joanna Holden, an early stage-stealer, excels as the eccentric Miss Flite and the hunched, wheezing Krook. Sophie Jacob, as Esther, and Morgan Philpott (principally playing Esther and John Jarndyce) are granted less range, but are excellent nonetheless. Esther is a paragon of virtue, but even as she rejoices in the good fortune of others there is an edge of envy and disappointment to her - Jacobs walks this tightrope between selfless and hard done by with apparent ease.
Interwoven with the dramatic action are the musical numbers, which often overlay melodies and have various actors singing different lyrics. For the courtroom scenes, the songs are fittingly cacophonous and chaotic as the cast members chant in honour of the Lord High Chancellor. Solo efforts bring out the best in comic figures, such as Mrs Pardiggle and Mr Guppy, or are rather more emotive - Richard's plaintive love song, and Lady Dedlock's quavering lament are both full of feeling. When not involved in the songs, the actors play instrumental accompaniments, serving as a another reminder of how absurdly talented this ensemble is. Even the handbell is rung with more rhythm than most of us could muster.
The cast make the space their own too, with a relentlessly physical performance. Characters stroll irreverently across the bookshelves, pop out of holes and clamber up stepladders, with plenty of scope for visual comedy. Minimal staging is multi-functional: props are carriages and staircases, costumes judge's robes and constable's capes. In keeping with a venue that contains three miles of bookshelves, books and pages hold symbolic value in the play's events. Paper is tossed in the air to mimic the smog of Victorian London, flapping books become at turns Miss Flite's aviary and Krook's roaring fire, and the countless documents of the Jarndyce case litter the courtroom floor. This is a world in which letters and affidavits uncover love affairs and unravel the secrets of the past.
The same themes recur throughout: the relationships between parents and children, the impossibility of love, the constant presence of loneliness and death. All seems rather fruitless and hopeless until the very end, when the loose ends are skilfully tied off and an unexpected resolution brought about. With nightly performances until the first week of March, this is not a show you can afford to miss. Creation Theatre's Bleak House is a superb adaptation on a vast scale, a sprawling family drama to witness and savour.