Review: Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, Richmond Theatre

Written by guest blogger Rob Smith.

This next production in Richmond Theatre’s delightfully varied season, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops starring Simon Callow, is a short and intimate one, comprising two of Charles Dickens’ lesser-known monologues. First we hear the tale of Mr Chops, a carnival dwarf who enters high society; after the interval comes the story of Dr Marigold (he was christened after the Dr who delivered him), a travelling salesman who adopts a maltreated disabled girl and nurtures her. Both monologues are characteristic Dickens, character-based narratives which combine heavy-handed social commentary with humour and pathos that are likewise not done by halves.

In a way these are brave choices for a stage production. It is no longer the Victorian era, when vast crowds were moved to tears by Dickens’ dramatic readings; instead, we are unfortunate enough to live in this age of cynicism, when Dickens’ finely-crafted methods of evoking sentiment are often likelier to produce wry smiles, or even a sense of embarrassment, than the intended tristesse… well, it is either this age or this reviewer.

Certainly no choked sobs rang from the stalls as Callow artfully tried and failed to hold back tears of grief whilst recounting the deaths of Dr Marigold’s pitiful waif of a daughter, his suicidally guilt-stricken spouse, and lastly his faithful hound, all within a few minutes of one another (even though he had played the part of the faithful hound quite excellently). No members of the audience seemed overcome as he recreated Marigold’s tears of joy upon meeting his adopted granddaughter – lately returned from China – for the first time, discovering that she is not deaf and dumb like her mother. But there were ‘aaaahs’ during the touching scene of Marigold’s proposal to his future wife, and as they departed, the audience seemed satisfied.

Much of this was no doubt due to having experienced the pleasure of a fine actor carrying a whole show on his shoulders, and giving it everything. Callow acts hugely; his magnificent double-breasted waistcoats seem to fill the stage. He is a master of voices, populating the stories with many vividly individual characters in a manner worthy of Dickens himself, and carrying on richly-written conversations between the most diverse of them without putting a word or an accent wrong.

He is at his best when giving us the larger-than-life public personas of Dickens’ showman narrators, the expansive Toby Magsman and the wideboy Marigold, almost bursting with enthusiasm for these performances within a performance. Magsman, especially, reminded me uncannily of Christopher Benjamin’s great performance as Victorian theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago in a 1977 Doctor Who story, ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ – fittingly, perhaps, as Simon Callow’s association with Dickens has also extended to a guest-starring role as the writer in a more recent episode of Doctor Who.

Although Dr Marigold and Mr Chops is not quite the work of one man alone – it has a director, designers for set, lighting and sound, and other crew – this is Simon Callow’s show, even down to the programme, which features two informative and well-written contributions by the actor. The set, though attractive, is more a backdrop than a space for Callow to inhabit, and the sound and lighting are rudimentary, amounting to no more than the faint sound of a barrel organ and a bit of dimming and brightening. With no theatrical effects to get in the way, the atmosphere is charmingly personal throughout, giving Callow ample room to communicate his love of the material to the audience. And that is at the heart of the production’s success.

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops runs at Richmond Theatre until 17 September.

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