The curiously titled Vinegar and Brown Paper, now playing at the Old Red Lion in Angel, focuses on a little-known story from the life of Kate Douglas Wiggin, author of the once-famous children’s story, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. When Wiggin was only 11 years old, she met Dickens on a train and Richard Fitchett’s charming play imagines the encounter, based largely on A Child’s Journey with Dickens, Wiggin’s memoir published more than forty years later. What Charles Dickens remembered of the encounter, if anything, does not appear to have been recorded.
In 1912, reminiscing to the Manhattan branch of the Dickens Fellowship, Wiggin related how, when a child, she had read almost all of Dickens’ books. This included David Copperfield which she claimed to have read seven times by the time she was 11, a feat one imagines well beyond all but the most precocious of children today. It is difficult to overestimate Dickens’ fame at this time and, in the 1860s, he toured America giving grandstanding performances of some of his best-loved stories. When it was announced that he would be visiting her home state of Maine, Kate travelled with her mother from their home in Hollis to Portland where, on Monday the 30th of March 1868, they and Kate’s Aunt Eliza watched the ‘sage of Gad’s Hill’ perform at City Hall, reading A Christmas Carol and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers. The next day, Kate and her mother left for home and found themselves in the carriage in front of the one carrying Dickens and his American publisher, James R. Osgood. The opportunity was too good to miss and Wiggin slipped away from her mother to take up the one vacant seat in Dickens’ carriage and when Osgood left for the smoking car, Wiggin moved to his seat, much to the surprise of Charles Dickens.
In Vinegar and Brown Paper, Wiggin is played by two actresses. Louise Morell is the older, life-wise writer, recollecting the man who provided the inspiration for her career and in a slightly awkward coda, explaining to her younger self the course that her life will take. As young Kate, Beth Taylor is an open-eyed and motor-mouthed child who, at least as far as her side of the encounter is concerned, captures and finally captivates Dickens who is brilliantly and convincingly brought to life by Keith Hill.
In this neatly put-together play, Richard Fitchett draws out how, one way or another, the work of Dickens was echoed in the works – and life – of Kate Douglas Wiggin. The primary setting is largely created through sound and light and the evening flies by thanks to Kevin Russell’s pacy direction and the lively and compelling performances of Taylor and Hill.
Review by Louis Mazzini
In 1868, Charles Dickens sits down opposite Kate, a twelve-year-old American girl, on a New England train. She is sassy and tells the most famous man of the age that she skips the boring bits in his books. It is not the usual fawning appreciation he is used to, but he is captivated by her direct openness and her stories of life in small-town Maine.
As past, present and future unwind in the railway carriage, Kate’s life emerges as one where good fortune and death are sealed by accidents of fate – a Dickensian tale. Vinegar and Brown Paper is a new, but true Dickens story, created not from his pen, but by the effect on another of a chance meeting with him on a train.
Written by Richard Fitchett
Directed by Kevin Russell
Vinegar & Brown Paper
Performance dates: Tuesday 5th – Saturday 9th December 2023