ONCE upon a time, the very famous children’s writer Hans Christian Andersen arrived, unannounced, at Gad’s Hill Place in the Kent marshes, home to fellow author Charles Dickens and his large, engaging family.

To the lonely and eccentric guest, the Dickens household seemed to be living a life of bliss beyond his reach. Yet, on account of his broken English, he did not see the storms brewing within the family: undeclared passions and, above all, a growing strangeness at the heart of Dickens’s marriage.

So begins Sebastian Barry’s play, commissioned by Out Of Joint, whose touring co -production with Hampstead Theatre opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse tonight with Niamh Cusack in the role of Dickens’s wife.

“It’s a completely new play based on a visit of Andersen to Dickens that definitely did happen, though there is fantasy in the play in that we don’t know everything about what went on at Dickens’s house,” says Niamh. “But he did write an account so Sebastian has written the piece from his imagination from that starting point.”

Dickens never saw his wife again after putting her in Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town at the age of 42. “Dickens always maintained that Catherine was mad but there was nothing to confirm that other than that she had post-natal depression after ten children,” says Niamh.

“So Sebastian has picked up the story from there and has explored the idea of great men having feet of clay and families suffering as a consequence of great artists having carte blanche to do whatever they want .”

Niamh suggests Andersen’s English is also a study of a male midlife crisis, as observed by Andersen. “The joy of it is that Andersen doesn’t speak English that well and Sebastian has been able to give a delightful sense of comedy to it because of his poor English,” she says, Yet Dickens treated the matter with utmost seriousness, no longer talking to friends who kept in touch with Catherine, taking out a letter in The Times to defend his position when consumed by public scandal, and burning all his letters before he died.

“There is no doubt that he was an extraordinary man and a great campaigner for the rights of young women but at home he was a bit of a monster, strange and eccentric, so he doesn’t come out of this play well,” says Niamh.

Her portrayal of Catherine conveys a mother who did love her children. “Everything I have read suggests that it was a lie by Dickens that she didn’t love them,” she says. “He actively discouraged them from seeing her, and so she didn’t see them for 12 years.

“I believe she is a woman who has been wronged so I feel very protective towards her and it’s an appalling thing that happened to her, to have no recourse to justice. She couldn’t defend herself, so Sebastian has revived her.”

Andersen’s English runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from tonight until Saturday. Box office: 0113 213 7700.