A chance meeting on a train between a young girl and a famous author provides a jumping-off point for us to learn more about the life of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, and to examine the act of writing itself in Richard Fitchett’s new play Vinegar and Brown Paper. Inspired by Kate Douglas Wiggin’s real-life account of her childhood journey with Dickens, the play sees the garrulous young Kate (Beth Taylor) repeatedly interrupt the author’s attempts to work on his unfinished final novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in order to discuss his other works and regale him with stories of life in rural New England. Although initially irritated by the disturbance, Dickens (Keith Hill) is eventually won over, and treats Kate to stories from his own life and readings from some of his famous works.
The train journey scenes are interspersed with glimpses of an older Kate (Louise Morell), reading from letters from her sister and gradually revealing to the audience what has gone on in the intervening period (although her hacking cough is an early harbinger of Dickensian doom). This future narration works less well than the train scenes, with some of these scenes sadly falling into the category of the dull bits which young Kate tells Dickens she would skip, although Morell comes into her own towards the end as she interacts with her younger self.
It is Taylor, though, who is the standout performer, perfectly capturing the mannerisms of a young and precious girl meeting her hero for the first time. Hill is also excellent, particularly in the scenes in which Dickens lets his guard down to entertain Kate with readings from his books. All three performers are on stage throughout most of the show, with lighting from Edmund Sutton moving the audience’s eye between them. Phil Newman’s set is sparse but sufficient to conjure up a train carriage in the foreground, particularly when aided by sound design from PJ Nielsen to add the rumble of train wheels and the chatter of the platforms at each end of the journey. Newman’s costumes also perfectly conjure up the Victorian setting.
Fitchett’s script is both amusing and atmospheric, and he effectively captures the voices of both the excited young fan and the world-weary author. The script shines most thoroughly when Dickens encourages Kate to become an author herself, providing some pithy insights into the writing process. But despite its short runtime there remains space for some tightening, particularly in the scenes with older Kate.
A funny and heartwarming piece, fans of Dickens or those wanting to know more about his life shouldn’t miss the boat (or even the train) on Vinegar and Brown Paper during its short London run.
Vinegar and Brown Paper runs at The Old Red Lion Theatre until 9th December. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review