London Tide based on Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend

London Tide is an adaptation by Ben Power of Our Mutual Friend, one of Charles Dickens’ most popular novels and the last he completed. Originally published 160 years ago, it is in many ways the definitive Dickens. Not everything or everyone is what or whom they seem to be. Most of the good end well and all of the bad end badly. And, as noted in more than one contemporary review, some of the characters and elements of the plot are familiar from Dickens’ other works such as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, and the novel even looks forward to Dickens’ final novel, the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Rufus Wright (Mortimer Lightwood), Brandon Grace (Charley Hexam) and Jamael Westman (Eugene Wrayburn) in London Tide at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner.
Rufus Wright (Mortimer Lightwood), Brandon Grace (Charley Hexam) and Jamael Westman (Eugene Wrayburn) in London Tide at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner.

To adapt Dickens’ behemoth – amounting to 325,000 words and not far off IT and Stephen King’s other doorstoppers – Ben Power has had to cut much but by no means all of the incidental humour in the original, along with some of the minor characters, like the social-climbing Mr and Mrs Veneerings, the bumptious Podsnaps and Mr Venus, an “articulator of human bones”. Complemented by songs, composed with the singer and multi-instrumentalist Polly “PJ” Harvey and built around Frank Stuart Flint’s hymn to the city ‘London, My Beautiful’, Power’s adaptation flows smoothly beside, on and under the Thames, steadily revealing the main elements of Dickens’ story – an unusual will and a mysterious body and their impact on the lives of a small group of Londoners. Power has of course made changes, adding Inspector Bucket from Bleak House as well as lines and an ending which, differing slightly from Dickens, give the story a predictable contemporary spin.

Directed by Ian Rickson, London Tide is a play-with-songs rather than a musical. It’s a little too long and there are times when it feels like a cut-price Les Mis, rescored by Radiohead. But there are some truly outstanding elements. The design, by Bunny Christie (set and costume) and Jack Knowles (lighting), transforms the almost empty stage, washing the audience’s perspective from scene to scene and creating a sense of immersion from the start (albeit one that was slightly marred on Press Night by being 10 minutes late and preceded by a meandering stagehand who appeared to be lost). While Harvey’s compositions feel a little underpowered for the scale of the story, the two main numbers – ‘London Song’ and ‘Holborn’ – are very effective and the ensemble cast is consistently strong. In a marvellous comic cameo, the young actress Ellie May Sheridan (Jenny Wren) shows she is a name to watch; and, as Dickens’ heroines, Ami Tredrea (Lizzie Hexam) and a luminous Bella Maclean (Bella Wilfer) are compelling, responding in unknowing counterpoint to choices they never sought. Predictably as far as modern drama is concerned, most of the men are either feckless or faithless and the genuine “villains” – Scott Karim (Bradley Headstone) and an excellent Joe Armstrong (Roger Riderhood) – attract little sympathy as they barrel through the story towards their vanishing point. Only Jake Wood, as the more ambiguously drawn Gaffer Hexam keeps the audience guessing as to the truth of his character.

With its watery imagery and strong sense of place, the dramatic potential of Our Mutual Friend is clear. Indeed, it was first adapted in 1866 when, as The Golden Dustman, it ran at Sadler’s Wells. And so, while London Tide has its strengths, it is unlikely to be the last of its kind.

4 stars

Review by Louis Mazzini

It begins like this. With the dusk and the storm and the Thames…

A storm rages and, in the darkest part of the night, a body is pulled from the swirling Thames.

Across the city, two young women confront an uncertain future. In Limehouse, Lizzie Hexam struggles to break free of the river and its dark secrets. On the other side of town, Bella Wilfer mourns a lost marriage. The appearance of the mysterious John Rokesmith has the potential to change their lives for ever. Will they sink or swim?

This romantic and propulsive thriller is a hymn to the city and the river that runs through it. Directed by Ian Rickson (Translations) and adapted by Ben Power (The Lehman Trilogy), with original songs throughout, the genius of Dickens meets the fierce musical imagination of acclaimed singer-songwriter, PJ Harvey.

London Tide
based on Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend
adapted by Ben Power
songs by PJ Harvey and Ben Power

Until 22 June 2024

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