Modern take on Dickens reveals the enduring appeal of a classic storyteller
Theatre Alibi are known for their innovative and exciting productions, alternating between writing for young and adult audiences, and mixing new writing with adaptations of classic works.
The latest production from this Exeter-based company is The Curiosity Shop, inspired by the similar-sounding novel by Charles Dickens.
Writer Dan Jamieson has imaginatively translated to the present day Dickens' story of love, human frailty and downright wickedness with a fabulous cast of characters, from bent lawyer Sally Brass to wide boy rapper Dick E Swiveller.
In his reworking of The Old Curiosity Shop Nell Trent lives with her grandfather above The Curiosity Shop, a vintage record store. When the shop is repossessed by Quilp, a malignant loan shark, Nell and Grandpa are forced to hit the road.
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Living rough, they meet the usual suspects – conmen, Good Samaritans, wide boys and buskers – in cities and villages across England.
Playfully staged and featuring film projection and a soundtrack that takes in hits from Bach to Bowie, The Curiosity Shop shows England to be as much a cultural curiosity shop as it ever was in Dickens' day...
On writing duty here is Dan Jamieson. His original work for Alibi includes Cobbo and Goucher's War and he has adapted Dick King-Smith's Crowstarver, Graham Greene's Ministry of Fear and Michael Frayn's Spies.
He says he had to be very disciplined when it came to adapting this Charles Dickens classic.
"If I'm adapting something, I read it as many times as I can. This being Dickens, and 73 chapters long, I read it twice in about a month – it took about a week each time.
"This show was a bit different, because we were adding another step to the process by transposing the story to the present.
"It's quite a brave thing to do – to take a classic and digest it. But I don't think it's a departure in some ways. Dickens is the ultimate storyteller and he's very present in the work. Storytelling is at the heart of what we do."
Dan says that, having chosen to put a Dickens novel on the stage, he needed to pick the right one.
"A lot of the Dickens stories have been done to death, but this one does feel shockingly relevant," he says. "The central character is Little Nell and her grandfather has a gambling addiction. He has to leave the shop they run and they find themselves homeless.
"Quilp is a moneylender who is really sinister. He is a classic villain who is rather predatory in a sexual way and is really abusive to women in general. It's all shockingly familiar to modern audiences.
"Grandpa is very naive and innocent, he's an old hippy in our version.
"We chose a record shop instead of the old curiosity shop because we wanted a modern equivalent. We've made it very much a theme of the production.
"Most of the music is old pop music. Normally in an Alibi production, we'd have two or three musicians and five actors, but by not having live musicians, we can have more actors. It's a development, in some ways."
The Curiosity Shop is aimed at audiences over 14 years old, and has plenty of dark moments.
"But we also try to honour the fact that Dickens at his best is very funny. The character of Quilp is awful, but also funny. In the book, Nell and her grandfather meet two men, Codlin and Short, who run a Punch and Judy show. In our play, Short is a one-man band who is a Kiss impersonator.
"We wanted to show that Britain now is just as colourful and odd."
The Curiosity Shop is at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, from tonight until March 16, before heading off on a UK tour.