Both plays are themselves about performance, and the two characters played by Callow: Magsman, the narrator of Mr Chops, and Doctor Marigold, are both entertainers in their own fashion; the former the proprietor of a traditional freak show ‘Magsman’s Amusements’, and the latter a travelling ‘cheap jack’, a hawker of goods and curiosities whose trade depends upon holding the attention of the audience with witty patter. Chops, whose unusual story is told with pathos by his former employer, is a performing dwarf in Magsman’s show, who unexpectedly comes into a fortune. Both narrators are working men, reasonably prosperous for their class, who look at the world about them with bewildered compassion, as 19th century society chews up, and spits out, their fellow man. Magsman is dignified, celebrating the successes of Chops and helping him when things go wrong, but things really get off the ground with the altogether more involved story of Doctor Marigold and his family; a sentimental rollercoaster of happiness grasped and snatched away, transcendent selflessness from a prosaic source - quite over the top, but genuinely affecting.
It’s no mean feat to man the stage single-handedly for the best part of an hour and a half, but, while not yet commanding that unique place in public affection that Dickens did in his time, Callow’s distinguished career of high-brow drama and well-chosen box office hits has ensured him an attentive audience. This was all to the good, as lengthy monologue makes heavy demands of the audience as well as the performer; you don’t always realise when watching an ensemble performance how much of the story is communicated by interaction. With a single performer, letting your attention wander for a few seconds can make the action quite tricky to follow.
Callow’s performance is great on the whole, from his appearance in mutton chops and straining waistcoat, to the thoroughly poignant end. After a slightly slow start, which caused the audience to fidget a bit, he gained in strength throughout the performance (his familiar mellifluous vowels just occasionally slipping through an otherwise creditable accent) until the lights fell on the final scene, and silence; the audience mesmerised by sentiment and imagination. Hard work, but rewarding – leave your cynicism at the door.