Sikes & Nancy

Theatre, West End
3 out of 5 stars

There’s a mixed double of Dickensian shows at Trafalgar Studios this Christmas, with two solo performances of wildly varying tone and quality. Neither’s quite a plum duffer, but while one trips over itself in schlocky presentation and queasy meta-theatrics, the other is a cruelly twisted shiv through the breastbone.

First out of the fog comes ‘Miss Havisham’s Expectations’ by writer and director Di Sherlock. Swanning somewhat shapelessly around the life and death of the classic tragic harridan, it takes in some of Dickens’s own mistreatment of women and a scattering of his strange preoccupations. Performed by the usually gorgeous Linda Marlowe, it’s riddled with jolting gear changes that strip her clutch on the material and rubbish off-the-peg illusions by Scott Penrose.

Marlowe impresses in the few moments that she’s allowed to actually inhabit the character, and there’s some good thoughtful stuff about her ability to slip into the skins and minds of those she meets, but there are too many silly technical distractions.

It couldn’t be further away from James Swanton’s horrific ‘Sikes & Nancy’, which traces the build-up and aftermath to the latter’s murder in ‘Oliver Twist’ with a Dostoyevskian eye for detail and psychology. It’s one of the most arresting accounts of a crime staged in recent years, and if the roaring, slavering pitch at which Swanton delivers it may alienate at first, it’s a perfect twin for the grotesquery of Dickens’s great illustrator George Cruikshank. It may occasionally swing towards camp, but it soon swings back again with a murderous edge.

Even the designs are worlds apart, with a cheap-looking assortment of gubbins by Andie Acott further enfeebling ‘Miss Havisham’, whereas Swanton brilliantly evokes the world of London’s grimy criminal backstreets with nothing but five wooden chairs.

So while ‘Miss Havisham’ may fall short of expectations, ‘Sikes & Nancy’ exceeds them with a fearful relish.

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