‘Dickens’ Women’ was created for the 1989 Edinburgh Festival by Miriam Margolyes and Sonja Fraser. It has since traveled internationally throughout six countries and was nominated in 1992 for the prestigious Olivier Award. As part of a worldwide celebration of 100 years of Charles Dickens, Margolyes will continue the tour throughout this year sharing carefully chosen characters to honour the man himself.
As I entered His Majesty’s Theatre on Hay Street in Perth, I felt like the youngest person in the room with the rest of the attendees averaging around an estimated 55-60 years old, and all dressed up to the nines! Everyone settled down for the show to start, just a few minutes after 8pm and a man entered from stage right to sit at the grand piano placed to the side of the stage. John Martin would be Margolyes’ sole accompaniment this evening as he played a few pieces in a build up to Margolyes’ entrance.
She staggered on stage in a drunken stupor, in full character of her first portrayal. As she ended the first of 23 of Dickens’ women asleep on a chair, she snapped out of character jumped up and exclaimed “That was Mrs Gomp from Martin Chuzzlewit, and I am Miriam Margolyes from Clapham.” The audience laughed hard and a thunder of applause overcame the theatre. I could tell already I was in for a side splitting show. Margolyes proceeded to explain her love for Dickens’, which lead her to find out what sort of man he really was behind his happy, jolly man exterior. There was in fact, in the words of Margolyes, “a tormented and demonic side to his nature” and this came from the dark childhood he’d grown up with. Many of the stories written by Dickens were portrayals of his life and the women in these books were subsequently portrayals of the many women in his life.
In this show Margolyes has brought these women to life to ironically tell the story of Dickens himself. The typical heroin type in Dickens books, all of which were “about seventeen” for example; Ada Clare from Bleak House, and Kate Nickleby of Nicholas Nickleby, were all representations of one person in his life, Mary Hogarth, Dickens’ young sister-in-law, whom had in fact died when she was just seventeen.
The entirety of the show was captivating as Margolyes’ incredible electricity lit up the room. She is such a tiny woman and yet she had such a power over the entire, almost bare stage. With just a few chairs dotted across the floor to assist in the interpretation of characters and a podium for her to read from, from time to time, her personality really was her greatest prop! She is an extremely expressive woman who could seamlessly grace in and out of character to tell the story.
Most memorable was her scene with Mrs Corney and Mr Bumbly of Oliver Twist. She played these two characters side by side so well I was almost in tears of laughter as she seduced herself over a cup of tea. Margolyes’ facial expressions just made it even funnier, she could have almost told the story with this alone and it would still have been just as funny. At the end of the scene she tells us “I love doing that – sexual greed and economical greed in the same scene” and we could certainly see that. At the age of 71, you can still see how much she absolutely loved every minute of what she does.
She ended the show with two opposite personalities, Mrs Haversham from Great Expectations and Miss Flite of Bleak House, both of whom could have been seen as older representations of Dickens himself.
Leaving the theatre my stomach and cheeks hurt from laughing so much during the show, and the buzz of excitement from the rest of the audience was alive as I queued up to meet the woman herself and get my book signed. She was a very humbling person, thanking us over and over again for coming. It was refreshing to meet someone so down to earth and loving every moment of what they do and not taking it for granted. It was also clear she was excited to see my young face at the show with my family as we chatted about our shared love of Dickens.
Margolyes still has another nine Australian cities to visit before heading off to complete the rest of her tour in the UK and North America. Tour dates for the remaining year can be found at www.dickenswomen.com/performances-tickets
By Hayley Wright