The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens’ novel turned into two four-hour plays using a huge ensemble cast, was one of the most successful theatre shows of its era. First performed in 1980, it transferred to the West End and to Broadway, and was turned into a TV production in the early days of the then culturally adventurous Channel 4, its celebrity belying its origins (so the story goes) as a cash-restricted way to employ the RSC’s acting staff as cheaply as possible in a single production.
The power of the production came from its combination of a straightforward rags-to-riches story with a familiar Dickensian cast of villains, friends and eccentrics told with pace and energy, with a Brechtian staging which regularly moved actors backwards and forwards from involved characters to impartial narrators, and kept them onstage when they weren’t occupied as either.
The music of the late Stephen Oliver added greatly to the show’s impact, especially the piece which closed the first play: a patriotic song for the Vincent Crummles theatre company to sing at the conclusion of their energetic (if not entirely Shakespearean) performance of Romeo and Juliet. A clip is on You Tube.
What I have always found especially moving and powerful is the moment half way through the song when the characters of the theatre company are joined onstage by the other members of the cast. Everyone is still in character, but the auditorium lights seem to come on and the song changes from one sung by a mid-19th century theatrical troupe to their audience in Portsmouth to one by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the present day to their audience in that London theatre and beyond. Its pastiche elements fade into the background as, buoyed up by the cast’s swooping, full-throated delivery, the lyrical message of national solidarity as the means towards national strength and prosperity gains an exciting contemporary resonance. “And victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace”. In that mid-1980s period of industry closures, unemployment and social and political tension, it seemed, in its own way, as forceful a piece of political protest as anything by Billy Bragg or Ben Elton. Unfortunately, its message seems just as urgent today.