Sunday, 5 February 2012
Simon Callow at the Customs House - review by Terry Kelly
Customs House, South Shields
WRITER Charles Dickens was once drenched by the waves on the beach at Tynemouth during one of his many and highly popular reading tours of the country.
But being the human and literary powerhouse he was, Britain's most revered novelist simply shook off the salt water and dried his clothes by walking another few miles.
This was just one of the many stories related by actor Simon Callow in a two-hour performance, tracing the life of the author of such classics as Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Bleak House.
With the UK and the literary world celebrating the bicentenary of the writer's birth in 1812, Callow, on the opening night of a month-long tour, read to a packed Customs House from his new and especially commissioned book about a personality who was probably the most famous man in the world in his Victorian heyday, a kind of literary Elvis.
A great actor and showman, Dickens eventually ruined his health with constant reading tours, while also wrecking his marriage through an affair with a young actress called Ellen Ternan.
Callow, without the aid of notes, skilfully traced the life and times of a writer whose literary genius was complemented by a campaigning zeal on behalf of the poor and bedraggled of society.
Central episodes in Dickens' extraordinary life, including his horrendous time in a London boot polish factory as a young boy - inexplicably, with his parents' blessing - were brilliantly recreated.
But there were times during a very engaging performance when I wanted less narrative and more Dickens, and additional extracts from the novels would have added light and shade to the evening.
However, Callow's one-man show was a sparkling evocation of a literary legend he rightly called "a blazing fire of a man."