Off the page and onto the stage, with murderous intent: Murder He Wrote, a Fringe review

John D. Huston as Charles Dickens in Murder He Wrote. Photo by David Whitely

By Liz Nicholls,

Murder He Wrote: A Dickens Of An Hour (La Cité francophone theatre)

The stories are vividly dramatic, ’tis true. But the translation of Charles Dickens’s rich, descriptive prose style, and his gallery of vivid characters, into solo theatre is work for the pros.

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You’re in luck, fringers. John D. Huston is back at the Fringe with a two-part Dickens show he last performed here nearly three decades ago. Murder He Wrote is old-fashioned storytelling as performance, a virtuoso weave of narration, voices, very particular accents, expressive gestures, facial adjustments.

Part 1, Sikes and Nancy, a set-piece culled from Oliver Twist, take us into the criminal London demi-monde. The man who stands before us is Dickens, or a contemporary re-creation thereof, in vintage lecture wear (with Dickens hair), at a podium. Huston’s predecessor in this enterprise, a violent crime thriller, was the man himself. Dickens apparently took it on the road for his lucrative “Readings” series in 1868. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a hit. Nothing like lurid violence to draw in the Victorian thrill-seekers.

It’s a measure of Huston’s expertise that he sets in motion, with impressive precision, a cast of individual characters and the successive locales of a nocturnal pursuit, with annotations about the spooky shadows and lighting. You know exactly who’s who, in accent, cadence, and timbre.

The poster child for good-hearted women doomed by their attraction to bad men, sweet Nancy has terrible taste in boyfriends: he’s the brutish thug housebreaker Bill Sikes. On the night in question, she’s followed by a spy to a nocturnal encounter with a rich gentleman. It will not end well for her. And as for Sikes … well, Dickens as we know, is good on hauntings.

The companion piece, Captain Murderer, a droll confection adapted from a Dickens short story, is a macabre black comedy about a serial husband with a particular way of dispatching his wives. The characters are heightened, the surprise twists amusing. All good unwholesome fun. And fun, too, to see how an expert lifts storytelling out of the library, off the page, and onto the stage.

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