The story that the late, great British playwright Simon Gray tells with his last major piece, ‘Little Nell’, paints a very different portrait of one of the great figures of English literature, Charles Dickens. Through his many great works such as ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’, Dickens came across as a much lauded figure of the Victorian age, and a holder of the high moral ground, ‘Little Nell’ takes him off this pedestal, and brings him crashing down to earth.
Gray’s play, a dramatisation of Claire Tomalin’s biographical work, ‘The Invisible Woman’, gives an account of Dickens illicit affair with young actress, Nelly Ternan. The affair started when Dickens, at 45, was already a celebrated author, and Ternan was just 17 years old. Dickens fell for Ternan whilst she was acting in one of his plays entitled, ‘The Frozen Deep’. After the season finished, Dickens set Nelly up as a ‘kept woman’ in a house in Slough, and sent his wife away, claiming that she was mad, and brought in his sister-in-law as the housekeeper and carer of his ten children. The secret affair between Dickens and Little Nelly lasted some 13 years.
Gray deftly structures the play around a meeting that Nelly’s son, Geoffrey, arranges in the chambers of lawyer Sir Henry Dickens, of Charles’s sons, some years after his mother has died. Geoffrey has arranged the meeting to try and uncover the truth as to what was the real nature of the relationship between his mother and the legendary author. Geoffrey gets more than he bargained for!
The play features a split level set designed by Brian Nickless. The audience sees the meeting between Sir Henry and Geoffrey unfold on the upper level whilst on the ground level major scenes from the past are played out. The centerpiece of Nickless’s set was a painting of the London-scape of the time, that ‘hung’ in Sir Henry’s chambers.
Mark Kilmurry’s production for the Ensemble Theatre served Gray’s strong drama well. The style was welcoming with vivacious actress Olivera Jovanoska, playing a working class woman of the times, welcoming audience members into the theatre, and providing something of a narrator role over the course of the play.
Mark Lee and Katie Fitchett performed strongly as Charles and Nelly, aided well by a good supporting cast with Drayton Morley, in particular, impressing, as the unfortunate Geoffrey whose curiosity is cruelly satiated.
‘Little Nell’ is playing the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli until March 14.