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London Tide

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • National Theatre, South Bank
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
London Tide, National Theatre, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Spine-tingling songs from PJ Harvey elevate the National Theatre’s stark Dickens adaptation

‘Little fish, big fish/swimming in the water/come back here man/gimme my daughter’ hissed a demonic 25-year-old Polly Jean Harvey in her 1995 hit ‘Down By the Water’. 

That was a long time ago. But where so many middle-aged pop stars’ forays into musical theatre feel like bored attempts to crack new markets, the cycle of 13 songs Harvey has written for the National Theatre’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s ‘Our Mutual Friend’ slot seamlessly into her body of work. 

The imagery of water and drowning that flows through Ian Rickson’s production of Ben Power’s adaptation of Dickens’s final finished novel feels of a piece with ‘Down by the Water’ and its iconic video. And where Harvey’s most successful album, ‘Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea’ concerns itself with the Atlantic and with modern, gleaming New York, ‘London Tide’ is almost its negative, steeped in the mud of the Thames and the grime of old London, which is referenced again and again in the lyrics. ‘This is a story of London, death and resurrection’ howl the cast in the opening ‘London Song’. ‘London, forgive me’ they keen in the closing ‘Homecoming’. 

The show is billed as a play with songs: the tune count is a bit low for actual musical status, and there’s a conspicuous lack of razzle-dazzle. Anna Morrissey’s stylised movement peps up the numbers, but there’s nothing like actual dancing here. Musically, the keyboard-led songs feel like a hybrid of the Harvey’s eerie ‘White Chalk’ album and the most vocally strident ‘Stories…’: they’re not her most oblique work, but they’re not exactly showtunes.

Nonetheless, Harvey’s songs are integral. Not only are the lyrics co-written with Power and integrated into the story, but the poised drama they provide feels vital to a show which is bigger on storytelling than emotions and might have felt flat without its spine-tingling tunes.

The story is a darkly satirical thriller that pivots on the disappearance of John Harmon, who disappeared – and apparently drowned – on the day he returned to collect his inheritance following the death of his wealthy father. It’s a tad potboilerish - because Dickens basically invented this stuff - but it’s the powerful moral dimension that rings out clearest: a story about people trying to better themselves, and succeed, with fascinatingly mixed results. The money ends up going to John’s affable family servant Noddy Boffin (Peter Wight), who seems altogether more deserving of wealth than his master was. He also invites Bella Wilfer (Bella Maclean), the poor betrothed of the late John, to join his household; she leaps at the prospect of a new life, but feels stricken by guilt at how she despises her old one. Around them, a half dozen other sub-plots swirl.

Maclean is particularly good as the conflicted Bella, not least because her voice comes closest to PJ Harvey’s banshee wail, and she also gets the show’s best song, the surging ‘Holborn’. It’s not a super ‘actor-y’ production: the 21-strong cast are there to tell a story first and foremost, to contain Dickens’ sprawling plot in a ‘mere’ three hours 15 minutes. But Rickson’s production and Power’s adaptation do a fine job of this, and in the second half the performances palpably crank up a gear.

If Harvey’s songs are the secret sauce that add emotion and weirdness, then the other USP is the extraordinary set from designer Bunny Christie, in collaboration with lighting designer Jack Knowles. At first the performance space looks virtually unadorned. Soon though, the entire ceiling – or rather a series of poles the lights are attached to – starts to undulate, rising and falling like the tide. Eventually it’s joined by the very surface of the stage, which ripples and heaves. The performance space becomes the Thames – the effect is majestic and disconcerting (I felt a bit seasick in places).

There are surely easier ways to adapt ‘Our Mutual Friend’ into a stage production. ‘London Tide’ deliberately plays to non-traditional strengths, and would be greatly diminished without the songs and the set. But with all its parts combined, this story from the city is something special: Dickens’s late class drama turned into a work both elemental and righteous.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


National Theatre
South Bank
View Website
Rail/Tube: Waterloo
£20-£99. Runs 3hr 15min

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