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Little Nell

 The Guardian, 13th July 2007, Michael Billington


Simon Gray’s new play is a puzzle. It was ‘inspired’ by Claire Tomalin’s marvellous book about the clandestine, 13-year love affair between Charles Dickens and Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman. But, while Gray does an expert professional job and Peter Hall’s production is finely acted, it is hard to say precisely what theatricalisation of the book adds to a now familiar story.


Structurally, Gray’s chief motivation is to view the Ternan-Dickens affair through the eyes of the next generation. Seizing on a minor but crucial incident in Tomalin’s book. He shows Geoffrey Robinson, Nelly’s son by her headmaster husband, visiting Sir Henry Dickens, one of the great writer’s 10 children, in his legal chambers in 1922. Robinson’s mission is to discover whether his mother was the writer’s mistress. He not only learns that she was but also that she lied to her husband and children


The process starts in 1857 when the 45-year-old Dickens meets 17-year-old Nelly in Doncaster and camouflages his sexual fascination under a mock avuncularity. It continues with Dickens setting up Nelly in homes in Slough and Peckham while remaining an icon of Victorian domesticity. And the lies, Gray implies, even start to infect the relationship between the two lovers.


All this is of some interest. But Gray’s play only really achieves an independent life in the strange scenes between the mature children of Nelly and Dickens. Her son, by a savage irony a bookseller in Slough, is the more visibly damaged in that he discovers he never really knew his mother. But Sir Henry Dickens, though long familiar with the facts, can never quite banish the memory of the banshee wails of his own discarded mother. If any moral emerges, it is that genius exacts a terrible price on all those with whom it comes into contact.


Running a mere 90 minutes, Gray’s play is informative, intelligent but somewhat lacking in the total gesture of drama. The main pleasure comes from watching a very good series of actors at work. Tim Pigott-Smith, from his first entry as Robinson, suggests a man uneasy inside his own skin. His speech is full of stammering hesitancy and the persistent thrusting of his left hand into his jacket pocket suggests creeping neurosis. Barry Stanton is equally remarkable as Sir Henry Dickens. His portly bearing and resonant voice suggest a clubman authority which slowly cracks to reveal genuine suffering from the guilt.


Michael Pennington possibly had the hardest task in playing Dickens in that he has to avoid making him seem a hypocritical villain: something Pennington does by subtly suggesting that Dickens found in Nelly solace for his aching heart rather than simply a sensual refuge. And Loo Brealey shrewdly suggests that, while Nelly may have started out as a child lover playfully tugging at Dickens’s beard, she matured into a woman who began to understand the desperate price she has paid.


The production get the Peter Hall Company’s new start off to a decent start. But I still can’t help hungering for something more original. Tomalin’s book was a scrupulous piece of feminist investigation that revealed a lot about the role of women in 19th century England. Gray’s play picks up themes and demonstrates that a clandestine affair can have terrible consequences. It still, however, feels like a clever dramatisations rather than real drama.




Whatsonstage.com, 13th July 2007, Carole Woddis


It’s five years since Peter Hall inaugurated his summer seasons at Bath’s beautiful Georgian theatre. This year’s festival includes two stage premieres: a new South African play by Athol Fugard and this shortish (90 minutes) but sweet bio-drama by Simon Gray of Charles Dickens’ secret other life with the young actress Ellen Ternan.


In a season which also offers Shaw’s Pygmalion – the rather pert young flower girl who turns Professor Higgins’ head (at least in the film; Hall’s revival; augmented by extra scenes Shaw wrote for the 1938 film, reverts to Shaw’s instructions and give them no such romantic outcome) – Gray’s companion head turner, Ellen Ternan emerges as just as much a victim of an older man’s fancy if collusive with it.


‘Nell’, or Little Mouse as he affectionately called her proved to be a redoubtable muse for Dickens – a Little Nell, killed off in The Old Curiosity Shop, resurrected. That she was also the love of his life, who remained at his side for 13 years, did not stop him from keeping her hidden, in darkest Slough and Peckham. In Gray’s play, there is a piercing scene where Nell confronts Dickens with her invisible status. “How do you refer to me in public?” she demands. “It depends on who I am talking to,” comes the pragmatic reply from the famous author and married man who fathered ten children by his lawful wife.


There have been several stage attempts in recent years to investigate Dickens, the man behind the work. Miriam Margolyes brought a subtle feminist critique to her one-woman show celebrating Dickens’ women. Gray’s Little Nell – inspired by Claire Tomalin’s bestseller, The Invisible Woman – is a far more affectionate though not uncritical exploration.


Gray makes a fine job of gently revealing Dickens’ hypocrisies, strange idealism complex and the destructive effects of adultery through the painful enquiries made by Tim Pigott-Smith’s halting, World War One scarred Geoffrey Robinson, Ellen’s son by a later marriage and his distantly related relative, Barry Stanton’s avuncular lawyer, Dicken’s natural son. In a cast that includes Tony Haygarth (as Ellen’s confidante, the Rev Benham) and Michael Pennington as a wonderfully bewhiskered and flamboyantly self-deceiving Charles Dickens, comparative newcomer Loo Brealey shines as the eponymous Nell, managing the remarkable feat of both looking an innocent 17 (when Dickens ‘seduced’ her) and a later, more agonised wife of the failed headmaster husband George Robinson, riddled by the guilt of her 13-year affair with the novelist.


Barely 90 minutes in length, Little Nell’s qualities are gentle but cumulative. Lighting designer Peter Mumford, designer Simon Higlett, who suggests park, Victorian living room and lawyer’s office all in one, and costume designer Christopher Woods wreathe the production in period glow while Hall directs with an elegiac touch. Gray, known in his youth for his bile, may have written more biting encounters. He’s seldom written one more simply affecting that still manages to contain the grit of truth.


Timesonline, 14th July 2007, Benedict Nightingale


Imagine you’ve grown up trusting your mother. Imagine you discover after her death that not only was she ten years older than she claimed, but also that she had been the long-term mistress of the great writer who, she said, had made an innocent fuss of her when she was a child. You’ve just imagined the predicament of Tim Pigott-Smith’s Geoffrey Robinson when he comes to Charles Dickens’s son, Barry Stanton’s Sir Henry Dickens, QC, with painful truths to learn.


In 1990 Claire Tomalin published The Invisible woman, a brilliant account of the 45-year-old Dickens’s seduction of and subsequent affair with a 17-year-old actress called Nelly Ternan, and her book has inspire Simon Gray to rework the same story. You can see why it appealed to a dramatist always fascinated by dark, difficult secrets and strange, subtle betrayals. As staged by Peter Hall as the opener to his annual season in Bath, Little Nell fascinated me too – though I felt that there was much more to be explored in the scenes involving Michael Pennington’s Dickens and Loo Brealey’s Nelly.


Funnily enough, it’s the encounter with Dickens junior in 1922 that has the emotional texture that the constant flashbacks to the 1860s never acquire. It’s agonising for the secondhand bookseller from Slough, which is what Pigott-Smith’s pale, stammering Robinson is, to ask the confident lawyer for information about his mother, and, when he gets the answer, you watch him  move from bewilderment and embarrassed confusion to helpless rage: “What manner of man was this Charles Dickens?” that’s one of the questions with which Gray tantalises us. Yes, Dickens seems to have fallen deeply in love with a girl who had the beauty and brightness that his dull, detested wife lacked. And, yes, you can understand why Nelly submits, like a vole trapped in the headlights, to the energy, the charm, the sheer imaginative dazzle of Pennington’s excellent Dickens. But if she is his victim, her eventual husband and children are victims. Victorian guilt transforms her into a lifelong liar who leaves her son a disillusioned mess – and, since she feels unworthy to be a vicar’s wife, she marries a man who unwillingly, unhappily renounces the Church for schoolmastering.


What Gray doesn’t sufficiently do is use his playwright’s freedom to speculate about the evolution of an affair that did, after all, last 13 years. There are suggestions, no more, that Nelly resented as well as accepted her status. There’s the tiniest hint of babies abandoned or dead. We also see her enraged by something presumably meant to provide an ironic parallel with her own situation: Dickens habit of acting out Bill Syke’s murder of Nancy during his public readings. Finally, she self-sacrificially carts the dying novelist back to the matrimonial home to keep his reputation pure.


Is it enough to dramatise the contradictions of their love? Not quite.




The Stage, 13th July 2007, Jeremy Brien


It was Oscar Wilde who said you would need a heart of stone not to laugh at Little Nell’s death scene in The Old Curiosity Shop. Well, you would need that self-same heart to suppress a chuckle or two at the irony at the centre of Simon Gray’s absorbing new play. For Charles Dickens himself, viewed by his contemporaries as the greatest moralist of his time, had the hots for an actress young enough to be his daughter. The fact that her name was also Nelly only adds to the curiosity.

The play, premiered at the start of the Peter Hall Company summer season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, is based on Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman, but it is by no means a dry literary effort. Hall, who directs, ensures it has a theatricality that is both gripping and vibrant. The format is a splendidly constructed series of flashbacks exploring the effects of the liaison on the two principals and later on their families, along with such themes as the agonies and ecstasies of adultery, the vanity of great literary figures and the pain of thwarted careers.

In the leading roles, Michael Pennington makes Dickens a dangerously flawed figure in private but a giant in public, while Loo Brealey, as Nelly, moves impressively from sweet if knowing innocence to inner strength. There is excellent support, too, from Tim Pigott-Smith and Barry Stanton as their damaged descendants.




The British Theatre Guide, 15/7/07, Allison Vale


Simon Gray’s new play, Little Nell, has the weighty authority of a classic. Inspired by Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman: the Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, the play is a fascinating study of what Gray calls “the sapping logistics of adultery”. Gray’s multi-layered script masterfully shifts its focus between the uncomfortable and clandestine affair between 45 year old Dickens and 17 year old actress, Nelly Ternan, and the long-lasting implications the affair was to have upon dickens’ sons, sixty-five years later.


The play is beautifully staged by the Peter Hall Company, benefiting from Simon Higlett’s imposing set, Peter Mumford’s impressive lighting and a pitch perfect cast.


Barry Stanton is memorable as Sir Henry Dickens. He is at first a thoroughly grounded man; respectable; successful; at ease in the leather and mahogany of his office. By contrast, Tim Pigott-Smith’s affecting Geoffrey Robinson appears nervous, apologetic and insecure. The two men peel back the layers of their past revealing the uneasy legacy of their father’s infidelity, and there is a steady blurring of the distinctions between them. Finally they come to see that they have in common more than they at first thought. Both men give masterful performances, not least in the unguarded emotion of their final scene.


Loo Brealey is a captivating Nelly. Her initial, uncomplicated naiveté makes for an unbearable seduction scene and her increasing emotional maturity throughout the play, and her dissatisfaction with her sustained anonymity, are deeply affecting.


Michael Pennington is deeply convincing as Charles Dickens, every bit the Victorian celebrity: puffed-up, self-assured, and easily able to use his status to ingratiate himself with Nelly. He manipulates, condescends and humiliates her in order to seduce her and then to sustain the affair. Gray makes the lightest suggestion of what he refers to as Dickens’ “sexual lunacy”, concocting a playful seduction, laden with uncomfortable innuendo: Nelly tugs at Dickens’ beard with her teeth and exclaims, “What are we to do? As I haven’t a beard to eat”, to which he replies, “There’s not a part of you that I don’t intend to eat”.


After they have consummated their relationship, Dickens provides Nelly a towel he has anticipated she might need. Here Pennington lends Dickens’ a smug pretence of tenderness, setting off this most pre-meditated exploitation. This, coupled with Brealey’s youthful bewilderment and naive acquiescence, has a gloriously uneasy impact.


Edward Bennett is a tortured and pitiful George Robinson, Nelly’s husband, duped into believing in his wife’s respectability, but frequently torn apart by his suspicions. Tony Haygarth is a wonderful Reverend Benham, his easy naturalism seducing Nelly into confessing her secret in lovely Victorian euphemism: admitting that she had “honoured” and “served” Dickens over many a year.


Little Nell is a fascinating and well-crafted story which cracks the veneer of the Victorian middle classes, and shatters the historical mistruth of the sanctity of Victorian marriage. Loo Brealey gets to the heart of Nelly’s dogged determination to suppress her sense of injustice and instead tolerate her lot. In this way, the production honours another Victorian institution: that a woman should know her place. She may ultimately have come to voice her anguish at her social invisibility, but Nelly Ternan nevertheless endured it to the very end, and this private torment is abundantly clear in Brealey’s astounding performance.




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