Review By Cameron Woodhead
I RECENTLY listened to an audio-book of Miriam Margolyes reading Oliver Twist. Her speaking voice was so soothing and beautifully inflected, it was like sitting by an enchanted stream. But the real magic came with the dialogue, when Margolyes burst into character, and the men, women and children of the novel - the swinish beadles, dying mothers and tremulous orphans - sprang fully formed into the imagination.
Margolyes (pictured) is an extraordinary character actress. Her one-woman show, Dickens' Women, is a tribute both to her infectious passion for Dickens' work and her astonishing versatility as a performer.
The show elegantly combines character sketches, short readings, biographical material and mordant commentary. Margolyes portrays characters from Dickens' lesser known fiction as well as the classics, with selections made partly on biographical significance - some of Dickens' characters were based on people he knew in life - and partly at Margolyes' (often considerable) pleasure.
Margolyes enters as Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, a sodden nurse who specialises in laying out corpses for burial. And it's soon clear that Margolyes has a special affinity for Dickens' grotesques, rendering his florid satires of human frailty with a full measure of hilarity, and a dash of poignancy when required.
Amazingly, her compelling vocal characterisations are matched in facial expression and physical gesture. She can contort her features into any kind of caricature. One memorable scene from Oliver Twist, when Mr Bumble proposes to his paramour, sees Margolyes switch from wide-lipped lust to squinting coquettishness at lightning speed.
But it isn't just the comedy that makes Dickens' Women worth seeing. There are staggering dramatic portraits. As the lesbian Miss Wade from Little Dorrit, Margolyes aches with tormented love and barely controlled regret. As Miss Flight, the ageing spinster from Bleak House, she transforms from a slightly potty old duck into a softly spoken Cassandra, as she recounts the increasingly unpleasant names of her birds.
Dickens' Women is a tour de force. When she appears as herself, Margolyes sparkles with intelligence and enthusiasm and is full of witty erudition about Dickens' life and work. And when she inhabits his characters, you'd swear they lived and breathed in front of you.
Posted : 17th October 2007