London Tide by Ian Rickson (dir) - review by Zoe Guttenplan

Zoe Guttenplan

The Sound of Dickens

London Tide


National Theatre until 22 June

On a map of London, the Thames is a great blue ribbon winding through Lambeth, Rotherhithe, Greenwich and beyond. Of course, anyone who has seen the river will know that the blue colouring is a lie, that the water is as murky brown in daylight as it is in darkness. It has been like this for ages. In the summer of 1858, the stench of the polluted river was so strong that politicians abandoned the newly constructed Houses of Parliament, handkerchiefs clutched to noses. Charles Dickens wrote to a friend: ‘I can certify that the offensive smells have been of a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.’ Six years later, he shone a light on the lives lost to, and built around, the Thames in Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel.

In Ben Power’s theatrical adaptation, London Tide, the river is the thread connecting an impressively culled cast of characters. Dickens’s novels are more frequently wrestled into multipart TV dramas than two-act plays. His plots are sprawling, complex and overlapping, his characters are numerous and rendered in grotesque detail, and his books are long. Working with director Ian Rickson, Power has thrown out more than half the characters, along with a number of subplots, leaving us with two central and intertwining stories. 

The action begins ‘beneath the iron mass of Southwark Bridge’, where scavenging waterman Gaffer Hexam (Jake Wood) pulls the body of John Harmon from the slime and ooze below. Harmon had been due to inherit his father’s fortune, on condition that he marry an unknown and impoverished woman, Bella

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