By Jen McGregor
The danger of a piece like Dickens’ Women is that you might end up with a safe, stolid and deeply tedious plod along well-worn paths of Victorian sentimentalism. It could easily have been a vanity project for an established actor, a safe bet for a venue, another one of those shows that marries a starry name to a classic author in search of sure-fire ticket sales, regardless of any artistic considerations.
Fortunately, Miriam Margolyes is not a self-indulgent actor, nor does she don the rose-coloured glasses when she looks at Dickens. Her love for his books is obvious, but it’s a fondness that doesn’t prevent her from seeing his flaws. Quoting from his letters as well as taking on his characters, she pokes good-natured fun at the man who “never got over anything in his life”. As a biographical reading it’s somewhat inconsequential – Dickens’ views on women were hardly atypical for a man of his era, particularly his creation of flawless, somewhat insipid teenaged heroines – but this is a rather irreverent salute rather than a lecture. It sets out to entertain without becoming misty-eyed, and that is exactly what it does.
Margolyes canters joyfully through Dickens’ canon, dipping into a range of well-chosen characters. The obvious ones are there, such as Mrs Gamp and Miss Havisham, but they are offset by some less well-known figures like Mrs Pipchin and Flora Finching. There is no reliance on costume or props to create these characters. Instead, everything comes from lighting, skilful piano accompaniment (the pianist certainly deserves a name check – this is where the absence of programmes at the Fringe can be frustrating) and of course from Margolyes’ superb acting. Her physicality and vocal control are masterful and intelligence sparkles behind her eyes. She spends every one of the show’s ninety minutes looking as if she is having the time of her life, and her exuberance is infectious. You don’t need to be the world’s greatest Dickens fan, or indeed to be familiar with Dickens at all, to share in her enjoyment.