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Dickens’ Women, York Theatre Royal, September 4
IT is a Dickens of a commitment, playing 23 roles in a one-woman theatre show that keeps travelling around the world. Especially when you are 71.
Yet national treasure Miriam Margolyes sounds as perky as she did, perched on Graham Norton ’s chat-show sofa, swapping badinage with The Black Peas’ Will.I.Am, when she pre-empts a phone call from York Twenty4Seven by ringing first.
It is 9.58am and Miriam, it emerges, is sat in her car outside a swimming pool in Edinburgh after her regular swim. “It’s essential for me because I don’t go to the gym and I don’t get the chance to do any other exercise, so I’ve been swimming for 50 years…not non-stop obviously!”
Keeping road-fit is part of the challenge that goes with performing Dickens’ Women, Miriam’s long-standing “tribute show” to Charles Dickens that she is re-visiting this year to mark the English author’s bicentenary.
As has been the case for all but a matinee at Hull Truck Theatre, Tuesday’s performance has sold out at the York Theatre Royal, where Miriam last performed in October 1999, when playing Madame Ranyevskaya in the late Sir John Mortimer’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. “It’s a wonderful theatre and I so loved my experience there that I’m thrilled to be returning,” she says.
That world premiere was directed by Sonia Fraser, who, as it happens, devised and wrote Dickens’ Women with Miriam.
“The first manifestation was in 1989 when it wasn’t a one-woman show but a two-person show and it was really rather different,” recalls Miriam. “Then David Timson didn’t want to tour after getting married, and I couldn’t find anyone else to do it, but I had the opportunity to do the show in Los Angeles when I was working in film and TV over there, and my agent in the USA at the time, Susan Smith, suggested I should do it as a one-woman show, at a week’s notice! So Sonia came over and worked on it with me.”
The year was 1991 and Miriam and the Olivier Award-nominated Dickens’ Women have been inseparable ever since, culminating in the latest revival for a year-long world tour in 2012.
“The last time I did it was in Australia five years ago, which was really successful, and when the tour producer suggested doing it again, I thought, ‘let’s do it in Britain too’,” says Miriam, who has followed up her travels around Australia and New Zealand with an Edinburgh Fringe run from August 8 to 25.
Such is the international appeal of Dickens’ Women that Miriam had a season at the Sydney Opera House and will play New York’s Morgan Library later this year, and she would have performed at the Jaipur Literary Festival in India too but for a pesky kidney stone.
“I think Dickens is more appreciated abroad than he is here, which is shocking and makes me very cross. I blame the gradual slide in our standards of education, and the only way to change it is to put Dickens back on the curriculum and make children read his stories aloud,” she says.
“That’s the key thing because they have to understand what fun it is do that. His writing is so precise, his dialogue fizzes along and he creates not just scenes but whole worlds.”
Her passion for Dickens is unstinting. “I’m never far from Dickens and read him constantly though I doubt I’ll manage to read all his letters before I die. There are 14,000 of them and I just keep going,” says Miriam. “I try to read them as often as I can.”
What has her “relationship” with Dickens brought to Miriam? “Because I’m so close to him, I’m not sure I can satisfactorily answer that, but I would say he’s heightened my appreciation of language, while trying to analyse his life and the times he lived in,” she says.
“I belong in the 19th century! I’m out of touch with the 21st century, but I’ve always loved the 19th century and felt at home there.
“Dickens was born a Georgian and moved into the Victorian era with rumbustious exuberance that characterises the era, so his character is dual, as it also reflects the earlier times he grew up in.
The Hogarthian scorn he portrays has a possible link to those wonderful political cartoons of the early 19th century that he would have been familiar with, and I think of his experiences as a little boy working in the morning to the factory, with all that poverty and stricken, vicious life that he saw and never forgot, held in his imagination and then displayed for us in his books.”
Does Miriam consider herself to be an ambassador for Dickens? “I do, but it’s not onerous. It’s a labour of love,” she says.
Those labours have resulted in the latest version of Dickens Women, directed once more by Sonia Fraser, with Miriam playing 23 characters from doe-eyed young heroines and brow-beating old harridans to men and midgets, while guiding the audience through the show as she sets out to discover the man himself, his raucous humour and the more sinister aspects of his life.
“The show differs from five years ago because I’ve changed in that time and the way I act the roles has changed, not deliberately, as I’m not seeking change, but simply the process of me living changes it – and I think that’s part of why the show works.”
Nevertheless, for all that passion for subject and show alike, Miriam may call time on Dickens’ Women once the tour ends on December 22, in Britain at least.
“I’m 71 now and I shan’t tour it again, as far as I can imagine, certainly not in Britain, though I might do it abroad again! I’ve given up a year of my life to do it, and there aren’t many [performing] years left ahead of me, so I hope York heeds my call to see me in my prime before I disintegrate!”
Tuesday’s sell-out show affirms that call has been heeded already.
Miriam Margolyes in Dickens’ Women, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday, 7.30pm, sold out. Stephen Joseph Theate, Scarborough, Wednesday 7.30pm, Thursday 1.30pm; sold out.