REVIEW: London Tide, National Theatre, Lyttleton ✭✭✭

Paul T Davis reviews London Tide now playing in the Lyttleton at the National Theatre, London.

London Tide
Ami Tredrea. Photo: Marc Brenner

London Tide.
National Theatre, Lyttleton.
17 April 2024
3 Stars
Book Tickets

“This is the story of a river”, just one of the lines in the opening number of Ben Powers’ modernistic adaptation of Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend, with songs by PJ Harvey and Powers himself. Director Ian Rickson and the designers certainly lean into the concept of the Thames, a superb opening has the cast being washed up on the shore, and Jack Knowles’s outstanding lighting design undulates like the tide, ebbing and flowing as the cast flow from scene to scene, making the Thames an additional, if not central, character.  Performed on almost a bare stage, Power’s adaptation cannot hide the flaw in every interpretation of Dickens, (except for the short, novella like A Christmas Carol), so much exposition is needed to justify the unlikely coincidences that occur later in the story.  Although Harvey’s music is evocative and often beautiful, it explains what we have just witnessed, and often holds up the developing narrative, and at over three hours long, this is a show that needs some trimming and a more focussed depth of characterisation, especially in the leads. Be patient though, viewer, Act One is mainly exposition, while Act Two has many beautiful set pieces and the drama pays off. This means, however, that the play only sparks into life occasionally.

London Tide National Theatre
The cast of London Tide. Photo: Marc Brenner

Within the flotsam that are washed ashore at the beginning, there are some engaging performers, and the ensemble are eminently watchable. Ellie-May Sheridan is a delight as feisty, straight-talking Jenny Wren, having some excellent meta-theatre lines about “the romantic lead”, what a great narrator she would have made. I very much enjoyed the Wifler family, Mary, (Penny Layden), seemingly but never deferring to her husband’s authority, (excellent Stephen Kennedy). Bella Maclean as Bella Wifler, possible heiress then actual heiress, convinces in the unlikely plot twists, and has a powerful singing voice, although restrained, she doesn’t let loose and bring out a rockier element. But all the leads, Ami Tredrea as Lizzie Hexam, Tom Mothersalde as romantic interest John Rokesmith, Joe Armstrong as Roger Riderhood, all must do battle with two-dimensional characterisation, the cast and the sweep of the tale being too broad for pausing and exploring deeper. Hence Scott Karim’s misogynistic and threatening Bradely Headstone becomes more of a comic character than a real threat. (Whilst I’m admiring Dicken’s wordplay and naming, a shout out to Peter Wright’s glorious Noddy Boffin!

London Tide
Jamael Westman and Ami Tredrea in London Tide. Photo: Marc Brennerondon Tide

Staged mainly in monochrome, it all feels as if it needs to move into more colour and depth, at times, like the river that runs through it, it feels murky and unclear. The movement, after so many years of Frantic Assembly and Complicite, appears a little derivative and safe. However, there are some excellent songs, performed in character vocally as well as narratively, but the real information, such as the “dust pile” and the money to be made in it, is in the excellent programme articles, rather than coming from the stage. It flows like a swollen river, but there are many enjoyable sequences in its running time.

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