It’s no secret that 2020-2021 were extremely challenging years for the theatre world, so it’s wonderful to see Oxford Theatre Guild returning to the Playhouse after a two year Covid-enforced break and celebrating their 60th production here. Oxford Theatre Guild is Oxfordshire’s largest and longest-established amateur theatre company – a vital part of the local arts scene. The opening night of their Nicholas Nickleby felt like an opportunity to celebrate the survival and success of local theatre, and cheer them on in their continuous efforts to develop local talent, on and off stage.
The show was adapted and directed by Hedda Bird, who was inspired by the novel’s earliest versions – Bird notes that at the time of the very first adaptation, in 1838, Dickens had published just eight chapters. That show ran for over 100 performances at the Adelphi Theatre in
Using ‘play within a play’ structure, we followed Nick’s tale through the performances of the delightfully enthusiastic Crummles Theatre Company. This provides excellent opportunities for little moments of commentary – from character archetypes to misogynistic naming. It also enables the play to handle the most harrowing parts of the story with the sense that we are one step removed – making the horrors of Dotheboys Hall and Kate’s suffering at the hands of Sir Mulberry Hawk and his caddish pals easier to watch. This structure not only keeps things light in tone but also avoids the need for lavish sets and props or a fixed narrator – instead we have the Crummles troupe standing in for a horse and carriage, making good use of an old trunk, and adding verbal ‘scene headings’.
There are plenty of comedy turns to keep everyone entertained, from Olivia Rogers’ brilliant portrayal of Fanny Squeers (think Ab Fab transferred to C19th Yorkshire) to a fabulously OTT Mr Mantalini (Nic Evans), complete with an accent which manages to swing between a number of European stereotypes. Rosie Megaw, playing Kate Nickleby, maintains an air of earnest innocence throughout which makes sure the most heartbreaking moments are not watered down. Jenny Griffiths is fantastic as Smike – conveying the boy’s mix of extreme vulnerability and hopeful eagerness in a delicate balance, making Smike’s demise a real moment of hushed sadness. And at the centre of it all is Niall McDaid, as Nick – bringing a wholesome, upbeat energy which feels well judged for a Dickens hero.
Using the Crummles Theatre Company as their theatrical alter-egos provides a kind of ‘am dram nostalgia’ to the production – they have full permission to be silly, to ham things up, to add a touch of pantomime when required - and in doing so, Oxford Theatre Guild deftly deliver a colourful and mildly tongue-in-cheek take on this classic tale. Whilst it may have economic and social injustice at its heart, the focus is wit rather than grit – making for an easy, entertaining night out.