Review – David Copperfield

Aug 7 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  Ambitious and accomplished

Young David and Peggotty. Photo © Victoria Petrie

Peggotty and Young David. Photo © Victoria Petrie

St Ninian’s Hall (Venue 230)
Mon 5 – Sat 17 Aug, 2013
Review by Hugh Simpson

Edinburgh Theatre Arts’ staging of David Copperfield at St Ninian’s Hall is an astonishingly ambitious undertaking.

An adaptation by Matthew Francis of a classic novel of over 700 pages into a play with some thirty named characters and fifty-one scenes, the whole thing clocking in at a few minutes under three hours. The fact that it is only towards the end that you realise just how long you have been sitting on an uncomfortable seat in a stuffy venue shows how close they come to achieving their ambitions.

The main problem is that the book does not lend itself too readily to theatrical presentation. It is a huge, semi-autobiographical novel, with over fifty characters who drop in and out through a series of episodes describing the unhappy childhood of David and his journey to maturity.

This production long as it is, still seems rushed at the end. Simultaneously, there is both too much and too little exposition. Too much, as a great deal of what happens is told rather than shown; too little, as anyone unfamiliar with the story could still be lost at times. To produce a play which retains the spirit of the book would probably require the services of a magician.

None of this is the fault of the cast of thirteen, many switching back and forth between several roles, who rise to the challenge with spirit and skill. The two actors sharing the title role are both outstanding. Colin McPherson cuts a likeable and reassuring figure as the older David, while Ben Robertson Petrie’s young David is extremely impressive. Once Petrie achieves a little more physical stage presence – to go with his remarkably accomplished vocal delivery – he will be a performer to watch.

A magnetic presence

Maureen Woods strikes the right balance between flintiness and indulgence as David’s eccentric aunt and sometime protector Betsey Trotwood, while Nikki Furnivall (the bitter spinster Rosa Dartle) is frighteningly cold. Iain Kerr is a magnetic presence in the contrasting roles of generous fisherman Mr Peggotty and the amiably deranged Mr Dick; Mags McPherson similarly carries off both the sympathetic nurse Peggotty and the horrendous Mrs Steerforth with aplomb.

Sylvia Jackon (Little Emily, the object of David’s childhood affections) makes us sympathise with a difficult character; Derek Marshall and Zoe Furnivall display excellent comic timing as David’s allies the Micawbers, good-hearted but seemingly incapable of organising their financial affairs.

On occasion the production makes the common mistake of treating Dickens characters as grotesques when they should be more complex. David McCallum is compelling as both David’s superficially charming schoolfriend Steerforth and the hypocritical, insinuating clerk Uriah Heep, but he is so terrifying that it is difficult to know how anyone could be taken in by either character – as they must be for what happens to make sense.

Similarly, Stuart Mitchell’s Murdstone (David’s cruel stepfather), fine portrayal as it is, leads one to wonder how no-one notices he is entirely insane. Lisa Moffat provides an excellent comic turn as David’s naïve wife Dora, but the character would benefit from some of the pathos the same performer invests in her other role as David’s unfortunate mother.

These are minor quibbles, however. John McLinden’s direction makes excellent use of Finlay Black’s ingeniously simple simple set and marshals the large cast superbly. It is noticeable that the best scenes are often those with the largest number of actors taking part, where there is a real sense of the company supporting each other in finding the rhythm of the piece. This is reinforced by the way most of the cast remain on stage throughout, and swap costumes, characters and accents seamlessly, never letting the commitment or level of vocal performance waver.

Running time: 2 h 55 mins
Run ends Sat 17 August 2013
Daily (not Sun, Thurs 15) 7.30pm; Sat mats also 2.30pm
Venue 230: St Ninian’s Hall, 40 Comely Bank, EH4 1AG
Tickets from:
ETA website:


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Comments (1)

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  1. Mr T says:

    Well done Simon (Mr Wickfield)!!