London Tide: Dickens plus PJ Harvey makes for an uneasy marriage

London Tide at the National Theatre
London Tide at the National Theatre - Marc Brenner

The playwright and screenwriter Ben Power amassed much credit for his award-winning adaptation of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, which encapsulated the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers.

It makes good artistic and intellectual sense for him to have alighted on Our Mutual Friend as his latest NT project (again at the Lyttelton). Dickens’s final completed novel (1864-5) – here retitled London Tide – broods, as is often the case in his work, on money: how it’s obtained, what it does to those who have it and them what lacks it.

The filthy Thames itself is the commercial highway that channels Dickens’s preoccupations, at once a symbol of the citizenry’s ebbing and flowing fortunes – buoying some, leaving others drowned in despair – and a conduit for murky business.

The opening scene finds a rough waterman called Gaffer Hexam scavenging the waters for plunderable corpses, with his daughter Lizzie in tow. Into his grasping hands comes a body identified as that of John Harmon, newly returned to England. It’s a discovery that thereby offloads the legacy Harmon had inherited from his father, a giant of the waste-disposal trade, into the pockets of (snigger not) Noddy Boffin, a servant of the old man; but it dashes the hopes of Harmon’s pre-arranged spouse, Bella Wilfer, unenamoured of poverty.

Revelations seep out, and the river claims more bodies, Dickens manoeuvring a great vessel of dramatis personae on the page, his florid prose manifesting its own tidal force. Power hasn’t opted for the maximum-strength RSC Nicholas Nickleby approach in his three-hour distillation, pruning the character-count to 18 named parts, and sadly jettisoning that distinctive Dickensian voice in favour of dialogue that’s almost televisual in its straightforward efficiency.

London Tide at the National Theatre
London Tide at the National Theatre - Marc Brenner

The gain is clarity, and Ian Rickson’s production in theory offsets the loss of the author’s musicality by scattering the evening with wistful, dour songs composed by PJ Harvey, a small on-stage band making it a hybrid experience, part period drama, part modish gig-theatre.

Unfortunately, those ditties often impede the action, without adding much ambience; and we’re a long way, in terms of ersatz Victorian vocal delight, from Oliver! The other glaring artistic decision is to keep the mise-en-scène austere, with furniture carted on and off and the elaborate lighting configurations rising and falling to denote the rippling flux of the Thames. Its initially striking, and skulking silhouettes work like a dream throughout. But given advances in video projection, it feels like a lot of wattage for little watery effect.

Still, at its best the evening combines fleet ensemble work with distinctive turns. Bella Maclean impresses as her gradually maturing namesake Bella Wilfer, as do Ami Tredrea and Brandon Grace as Hexam’s increasingly estranged offspring Lizzie and Charley. The latter falls prey to demonic headmaster Bradley Headstone, Scott Karim creepily spot-on. But the laurels go to the transfixing stage debutante Ellie-May Sheridan, who seems to have stepped out of Dickens’s imagination: smudge-faced, vulnerable, radiant and indomitable as Jenny Wren, the no-nonsense yet eccentric doll-costumier. A five-star wow bobbing in a three-star show.

Until June 22;