United Players' The Old Curiosity Shop company

The Old Curiosity Shop was originally published by Dickens as a weekly serial in 73 installments before it was compiled into a best-selling novel. Eager readers circa 1840 languished in anticipation for each chapter much like modern TV-show junkies anxiously yearn for subsequent episodes. 

To condense such a lengthy body of work into a two-hour theatre production is a tremendous task. Simon Webb scores a valiant attempt at adapting Dickens’ tale for the United Players penultimate offering of the 2014 season. 

The Old Curiosity Shop is the fourth among fifteen major novels in Dickens’ legendary literary repertoire, following the story of orphaned 14-year old Nell (Olivia Huntsman). She resides with her grandfather (Douglas Abel) in an old shop where he sells curiosities to disinterested Londoners. 

Cruel circumstances arise where her grandfather amasses an enormous debt and the pair must flee across England from their malevolent pursuer, Daniel Quilp (Kazz Leskard). Along the way the duo encounter a myriad of strangers, some benevolent, some villainous. Just as they are on the brink of succor, the novel concludes with tragedy. 

Louise Phillips, Kirsty Provan, Rose Lennox, Emma Middleton
[Louise Phillips, Kirsty Provan, Rose Lennox, Emma Middleton]

The prolonged length of the written series allowed Dickens to introduce these legions, then methodically imbue each character with richness of depth and individuality. Such luxury is restricted within the 120-minute timeframe of a stage production. Consequently, insufficient opportunity was afforded the actors in order to establish the rapport needed for heart-wrenching engagement from the audience.

Although each scene transition was cohesive and vital elements of the narrative were captured, the characters had no time to blossom. For example, in Dickens’ novel, Quilp is a malignant, deformed dwarf who nonetheless is able to charm and cajole others to obey him. These sinister traits were not fully realized on stage despite the intrepid performance given by fair-faced Leskard. 

Similarly, Huntsman’s faithful portrayal of Nell is lovable but not emotionally jarring; seasoned theatre-veteran Abel could not fully impart the mentally-bereft state of the gambling-addicted grandfather. Although the program did not list a dialect coach, the entire cast executed a fine performance of the regional accents, especially by Mrs. Jiniwin (Emma Middleton).

Due to multiple novel sub-plots there was also inadequate time to fully nourish the brief scenes in the play so the plot may seem convoluted for audiences unfamiliar with the novel. Some pivotal moments could only be presented as snippets. The drama starts off in a re-ordered fashion with shrewish Mrs. Jiniwin, poor brow-beaten Mrs. Quilp (Rose Lennox), and busybody Mrs. Minor (Kirsty Provan) gossiping about the odious Mr. Daniel Quilp.

Graeme Thompson, Kazz Leskard, Kirsty Provan
[Zac Scott, Steve James, Graeme Thompson]

Little emphasis is bestowed upon the Curiosity Shop once the audience is finally introduced to Nell. Thus the play’s title (and a few scenes) remained confusing until the end when the relationships were satisfactorily revealed. Other incidents, such as Quilp’s accident or Nell’s death had low dramatic impact. 

Carolyn Rapanos’ effective set design functions for multiple locales, allowing for fluid actor movement. However it was also a slight hindrance in that actions taking place on the floor were obscured to audience members sitting behind the first few rows. For best viewing, sit on the right-hand side of the house. 

However, these shortcomings are not a result of incompetent effort from the tremendously talented cast, nor imprudent adaptation by the playwright. Any reworking of this immortal Dickens classic is a formidable undertaking and bound to be bursting with challenging decisions. Webb succeeds in preserving some delectable morsels of Dickens’ wry wit in several supporting scenes. 

More appreciation of this piece can be achieved by reviewing a summary of Dickens’ novel. The audience can then recognize the astute choices made by both adaptor and director (Simon Webb, Sarah Rodgers).

The United Players take on The Old Curiosity Shop through April 20 at the Jericho Arts Centre. Arrive early to snag a parking spot and to enjoy the smooth music played by Pat Unruh, who also provides the musical sound effects for the production.

Photos by Nancy Caldwell.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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