Miriam Margolyes' face pops up everywhere: in BBC dramas, Hollywood blockbusters and now in the latest must-see TV show Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. And here she is in Melbourne, larger than life, in Dickens' Women, a reprise of the one-woman stage show she devised with Sonia Fraser that first came here in 2007.
As well as being one of the finest character actresses of our time, Margolyes is a supreme voice artist. Many of her notable film roles (e.g. in Babe and Monkey) have been voiceovers. It is her vocal talent above all that differentiates the characters in Dickens' Women and enables Margolyes to morph from waif to matron to ditzy heroine in a blink of her wickedly sparkling eye.
After a delicate piano introduction by John Martin, who provides musical transitions throughout the show, Margolyes explodes on to the stage as Mrs Gamp (Martin Chuzzlewit), in her role of alcoholic midwife and layer-out of corpses. It is a richly imagined character that was very popular with Dickens' public and Margolyes bustles into the part with relish. This master of comedy contorts her body to fit other grotesque caricatures, notably Miss Mowcher (David Copperfield), dwarf manicurist and hairdresser, and Mrs Jarley (The Old Curiosity Shop), proprietor of a traveling waxworks.
Although comedy is her forté, Margolyes brings a stillness and emotional intensity to the more fragile female characters, such as the tragic Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), the lesbian Miss Wade (Little Dorrit) and the loyal and faded Mrs Micawber (David Copperfield), a character based on Dickens' mother. Weaving a narrative between the portraits, Margolyes – who studied English at Cambridge University – picks out the pivotal events and people in Dickens' stormy life that spawned these colourful characters. She has an intimate rapport with her audience and she certainly spins a great yarn.
Despite her passion for Dickens' work, Margolyes is happy to show a healthy disrespect for his failings, particularly in his attitude to women. If he does not turn women into grotesques, he portrays them as elderly spinsters, desiccated and bitter, or as young flibbertigibbets – silly girls who will, all too soon, turn matronly, vain and ugly. Only the children are utterly innocent. For them, Margolyes conjures away her mature figure and hollows out her voice to a piping wisp.
Among the acted segments, there are several where Margolyes switches between two characters – a feat she excels at. The exchange between the papery Miss Havisham and young Pip is riveting, that between Mrs Pipchin and sickly little Paul (Dombey and Son) heartbreaking. And, in a tour de force of physical comedy, the courtship scene between the salacious Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney (Oliver Twist) is hilarious, far funnier than if played by two actors.
Margolyes has plenty to say about Dickens' predilection for young women, and how disappointed he was when his first sweetheart grew up. Out of his disappointment he created a cruel portrait of the matured girl in Flora Finching (Little Dorrit), a role Margolyes played in the 1988 film to critical acclaim. She repeats the performance here of a simpering, vain and self-deluded woman that is as affecting in its pathos as its humour. With an even tenderer touch, Margolyes closes the show with Miss Flite (Bleak House), a little old lady who attends court every day to await judgment on a court case that, as likely as not, never existed.
Margolyes is eager to share her enthusiasm for Dickens's characters and to inspire us to turn back to his novels with renewed delight and a better understanding of the man who created the Dickensian phantasmagoria. Her performance does everything to ensure that we shall, and what better contribution could an artist make to the bicentenary of Dickens' birth?
Andrew McKinnon & AMcK Fine Entertainment
Written & Adapted by Miriam Margolyes & Sonia Fraser
Directed by Sonia Fraser
Venue: Arts Centre, Playhouse
Dates/times: Wed 29 Feb to Fri 2 March, 7.30pm; Sat 3 March, 1pm and 7.30pm. Frankston 6-7 March, touring Australia to 3 June.
Duration: 2 hours
Tickets $89; $79 conc; groups (6+) $69
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au or 1300 182 183