To suggest that Dickens’ vision of 19th Century Britain remains relevant is, tragically, far too big an understatement. Judging just from the streets of London and Cardiff, where this reviewer has lived, homelessness and abject poverty remain as severe a problem in 2017 as they did when The Chimes was first published in 1844. As the country gets into the grip of winter, there’s perhaps not a better time for Judith Roberts to produce this smart adaptation. As well as a solid piece of theatre, it’s a scathing indictment of the government and its failings.
As she showed in her 2015 production Triptych, Roberts isn’t afraid to take risks with her artistic output. Her decision here to turn the novel into a musical is ambitious and it almost pays off. At its best, the production is a joy to watch – strong individual performances and haunting live music combine to create the dystopian ambience that is Dickensian London. That its set in a church both helps and hinders the piece, however. While the venue provides excellent acoustics, the unorthodox staging means the action is often in periphery and unable to provide the affectation it demands.
Ironically, though probably unintentionally, the difficulties in not seeing everything echoes the story itself. Unable to cope with the misery of poverty and debt, elderly porter Trotty decides to climb the local bell-tower and kill himself. While atop the tower, he is met with visions of what his suicide will mean to his family and close friends, visions that may or may not be true.
Due to injury, Matthew Jure is physically unable to perform the role of Trotty at this performance. He delivers his line from a pulpit just off stage while Roberts herself mimes along on it. Naturally, Roberts’ unrehearsed performance doesn’t match up to Jure’s superb dialogue delivery. When Jure finally does appear on stage briefly at the end of the performance, he commands it, and one is left wondering what could have been. Of a stellar cast, two stand out in particular. There is a grace to Lucy Benson Brown’s performance as Meg, and her expressions of hope and hopelessness are equally believable. Fergus Rees relishes the chance to play two very different characters, forcing sympathy as beleaguered ‘vagrant’ Will Fern and exuding evil as the pompous Mr Filer.
Special mention also needs to go to the ensemble cast, made up of performers who have been homeless themselves. Roberts tries to bring the production into the modern world by filtering in news snippets and speeches from politicians, but they feel shoe-horned. Merely the presence of that ensemble cast on stage is enough to provide the poignancy and melancholy that the production needed.
Though flawed and the victim of misfortune, The Chimes is ultimately a solid and timely piece of theatre. Roberts’ decision to explore something so culturally significant in the manner that she has is admirable – only the execution doesn’t quite match the intent.