Little Nell at the Theatre Royal Bath, is a curious play. Written by Simon Gary and inspire by Claire Tomalin’s book on the subject, the play explores Charles Dickens’s relationship with Nelly Ternan, or Little Nell (nothing to do with the other, fictional Little Nell). Dickens meets his future mistress at the age of 45 when she was only 18, part of a theatrical family performing in a play he was producing; eventually he sets up an alternative home with her, with the affair contiuning until his death at the age of 58. The play dramatises their meeting and events in their shared life through a plot device; the meeting of Ternan’s son (from her subsequent marriage after Dickens’s death) and Dickens’s son some time in the early 1920’s (the former to find out about his mother’s totally concealed relationship with the latter’s father). This enables most of the exposition to be done by the two twentieth century characters, and for Dickens and Ternan’s scenes to concentrate on their relationship.
The play is strange because it feels very old fashioned and rather stolid. The framing device never really fully pays off, as the two men in the 1920’s never really matter to our central story, they are very much incidental to, whilst conversely framing our understanding of, the plot. It also feels quite uneventful (though not totally undramatic), the kind of play that gives you the basics of the story and doesn’t really go any further. I didn’t have any gripping interest in the story development or characters’ fate, there was nothing really fascinating there (perhaps the fame and familiarity of the subject is partly to blame for this). But this is a play that is easy enough to watch, an inconsequential 90 minutes (I think this brevity is, unusually, a mistake. A fuller examination, or fictionalisation, of Dickens and Ternan’s lives and characters would have been more satisfying). The most striking moments in the play focus on Dickens sexual obsession; his creepy paternalistic approach to the young Nelly soon turned into less wholesome business not fit for the self proclaimed uncle, 27 years the young woman’s senior. Indeed Dickens does seem to have treated many of the woman in his life roughly, his wife was turned out of his official residence in favour of her sister (though a romantic relationship is not clear), at the time of course he was having his affair with Nelly. His disavowal of Nelly publicly, and hiding her in suburban obscurity also seems pretty rotten, he can take her or leave her as he wills. Dickens actually managed to keep his affairs out of the public eye (bar some salacious rumour), which would be particularly astonishing in our 24 hour media age, when the thought of a major A-list celebrity literally living a double life for 13 years and successfully concealing it from the public, is nearly unthinkable.
Sir Peter Hall, now on his fifth summer season at the picturesque Theatre Royal, directs, with an oak panelled set design by Simon Higlett and lighting by the every reliable Peter Mumford. Tim Pigott-Smith plays Ternan’s son, a mentally scarred WWI veteran, with suitably restrained emotion and flashes of anger about his mother’s treatment. Loo Brealey is Nelly, whom evolves from a wide eyed and winsome young girl into a bitter woman (the former seemed quite stilted). Dickens is played by Michael Pennington, as a slightly creepy figure with high blown rhetoric to convince his Nelly of his good intentions. Pennington (and the play) has to be careful not to make Dickens too black and white, but I thought him a generally unpleasant and tawdry man, I didn’t get any sense of his greatness or importance.
It’s a play that will be enjoyed by the vast majority of those seeing it, as inoffensive middle class theatre. But I would have liked a little more life in the piece.