Even the most confirmed Dickenophile might be forgiven for having grown lately a little weary of their idol’s name. Celebrations of his bicentenary have ensured an almost constant presence in the television and radio schedules; he’s spoken of with hushed reverence, with the occasional protestation that he was absolutely nothing on Thackeray and Eliot whispered in corners like blasphemy.
The Landor Theatre’s exuberant revival of Rupert Holmes’ music-hall adaptation The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a welcome departure from all that tugging of the forelock. The musical premiered in New York in 1985, swiftly transferring to Broadway, and nicely manages both to celebrate the revered author and skewer some of his idiosyncrasies. As every schoolboy knows, Dickens rather inconsiderately died before completing Drood, so that a novel which is at times quite exasperatingly Dickensish (the young maiden is one Rosa Budd; the orphaned and suspiciously ‘foreign’ brother and sister are named Landless) has a romance and attraction somewhat out of proportion to its merits.
Central to the plot is not Edwin himself – an inoffensive young man at his most interesting when he vanishes – but the villainous John Jasper, choirmaster at Cloisterham Cathedral and besotted with Rosa, who is betrothed to Edwin. Supporting characters – including an opium-den harridan known as Princess Puffer, a stonemason named Durdles, and the high-tempered Mr Landless – become in their turn suspects in the disappearance of Drood.
Holmes’ stroke of genius is to embed the half-finished, half-polished novel within another play: it is presented by the enthusiastic but occasionally hapless cast of the Music Hall Royale, so that any infelicities in plot, song, performance or staging may be charmingly excused. He combines direct excerpts from the novel (“He would kill as easily as comb his sleek hair!”) with fresh dialogue and ‘musical interludes’. The Tony Award-winning score – a loving homage to the sweet-natured vulgarity of music-hall lyric and melody – is almost obscenely entertaining, and the evening concludes with an audience vote as to who topped off Drood.
Of a uniformly competent cast, some performances are particularly worthy of note. Wendi Peters as Miss Angela Prystock/Princess Puffer appears (as one might expect) thrilled to the garters to have thrown off the drudgery of Coronation Street, and possesses an impressive set of pipes together with the ability to set an audience tittering with a cocked eyebrow. It is never clear whether it is the Victorian Mr Clive Paget or the contemporary Daniel Robinson who’s chewing the scenery as John Jasper, but it hardly matters: he is chillingly, deliciously sinister. Victoria Farley as Miss Deirdre Peregrine/Rosa Budd is appropriately peachy, and has a voice that will surely reach the West End in due course. Natalie Day as Edwin Drood/Miss Alice Nutting doesn’t quite have the vocal reach to match up to the belting Robinson, but plays her part with boyish swagger. Denis Delahunt as Chairman, tasked with keeping the unruly music-hall ‘cast’ under control and the audience merry, has an endearing gravitas, and altogether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, carried by delight in the material and an evident pleasure in finding the audience unable to resist a second chorus of ‘Champagne Charlie.’
Director Matthew Gould has paid careful attention to the choreography, the exuberance of which can hardly be contained by the confined spaces of the Landor: the song ‘Both Sides of the Coin’ has about it more than a touch of the Fosse. Musical Director James Cleeve beautifully manages that trick of conducting and playing the keyboards simultaneously, all the while dressed in tie and tails so as to sustain the illusion that it’s 1886 outside, and we’ve all popped in to escape a pea-souper.
This is not quite a perfect production, but it’s as engaging and entertaining an evening as can be had; and I cannot help feeling that Dickens himself – so much more devilish and silly than is sometimes admitted – would have thoroughly approved.