Review: LONDON TIDE, National Theatre

The National Theatre's adaption of 'Our Mutual Friend' is an interminably grey affair

By: Apr. 18, 2024
Review: LONDON TIDE, National Theatre
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Review: LONDON TIDE, National Theatre

How much grey can you cram into one show? That’s the prevailing question in London Tide, Ben Powers’ haggard adaptation of Our Mutual Friend.

Usually it’s anything but Hard Times for Dickens stage adaptations. Often artistically and financially bankable, the RSC’s 1980 arse-aching 8 ½ hour Nicholas Nickleby was critically acclaimed and Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol is dusted off and wheeled out of the Old Vic’s attic every year along with the yuletide décor. That’s not to mention Oliver!

London Tide, a new musical version of Dickens’ sweeping satirical saga of social mobility and city life spanning the gilded luxury of high society hierachies and the decrepit lows of London’s gaslit underworld, has big Victorian boots to fill. 

Power, part of the writing force behind The Lehman Trilogy, broods over the central characters whose intersecting social ambitions and pulsating emotions are the novel’s fulcrum. The focus is firmly on them, but the baby is thrown out with the bathwater: reduced to its naked mechanics, the exposition laden writing lacks the lustrous life blood that so warmly flows through the veins of Dickens’s literary worlds. Any sociopolitical sting that emerges is severly blunted.

Looking as skeletal as it feels doesn't help breathe vibrancy into the production. The fashionably austere set is aesthetically malnourished bar the lighting rig that dabs and swells mimicking the Thames ebbing and flowing. The river is a mystic life force in the novel, the city's central nervous system that strings together the characters through life, death, finance, and family. Director Ian Rickson’s production retains the river’s grey omnipresence with too much of an emphasis on the eyeball-numbing grey.

In fairness Power and Rickson were probably banking on the music to add colour. It’s a calamitous shame PJ’s Harvey’s score doesn’t conjure the faintest semblance of vitality. A bloated concoction of subdued power ballads paired with painfully superficial lyrics are such a tagged-on afterthought that the production couldn’t just go on happily without it, but would actively improve if it were abandoned. No seriously. Shaving off thirty minutes of sludgy dirge off of a show already over three-hours would be a welcome decision both for the audience and the cast who mostly struggle to sing in key.

With that said the ensemble cast are the saving grace (just when not singing). Ami Tredrea’s Lizzie Hexam balances unsentimental earnestness with slick focus, slyly playing off Jamael Westman’s suave but senstive Eugene Wrayburn. Tom Mothersdale, shoulders hunched and desolation pouring from his angst-ridden eyes, is magnetic as existentially tormented John Rokesmith, and Ellie-May Sheridan exudes scene-stealing chutzpah as street urchin Jenny Wren. They deserve better than to be drowned in the dour London Tide.

London Tide plays at The National Theatre until 22 June

Photography: Marc Brenner


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