Dickens' Women

Concert Chamber - Town Hall, THE EDGE, Auckland

28/11/2007 - 02/12/2007

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

04/12/2007 - 05/12/2007

Opera House, Wellington

07/12/2007 - 09/12/2007

Production Details

Created and performed by Miriam Margolyes

Award-winning British actress Miriam Margolyes brings her acclaimed show Dickens’ Women to New Zealand in November and December.

Dickens’ Women takes audiences on a trip into history, through the lives of the women in Charles Dickens’ life – real and fiction.

Miriam Margolyes is acknowledged as one of the most knowledgeable and brilliant interpreters of Charles Dickens and her wonderful sense of humour shines as she traces the startling similarities of the women in Dickens’ work and his life.

“I have been a great admirer of Dickens, a passionate admirer, all my life and I love to share my relish in his humour and variety and vitality,” Miriam says. “I love the contrast between the goodness of the prose and the badness of the man. His daughter once said ‘he was a very wicked man’ and no-one seems to know that but they will after they see my show.” 

Miriam created Dickens’ Women18 years ago for a season at Edinburgh Festival and has since toured it around the world including seasons in the United States, India and Israel. The West End season in the Duke of York Theatre earned her an Olivier Award nomination. This will be the first time she has brought the show to New Zealand, following a three month Australian tour which has been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.

In the show Miriam brings to life 23 different characters (male and female) including many old favourites: The Old Curiosity Shop‘s Little Nell, loyal Mrs Micawber from David Copperfield (inspired by Dickens’ own mother) and the cold embittered Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.

Acclaimed on stage and screen, Miriam won an LA Critics Circle Award for her role as Flora Finching in the film of Little Dorrit and has become a firm favourite with filmgoers in a range of roles including Professor Sprout in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mrs Mingott in Martin Scorcese’s The Age of Innocence (which won her a BAFTA), Ladies in Lavender, Being Julia, Babe and Happy Feet.

Most memorable TV credits include Old Flames, Freud, Life and Loves of a She Devil, Blackadder, The Girls of Slender Means, Oliver Twist, The History Man, Vanity Fair, Supply & Demand. She was Franny in the CBS sitcom, Frannie’s Turn and the Miss Marple episode, Murder at the Vicarage.

She is the presenter of the popular BBC documentary series Dickens in America and most recently played Madam Morrible in the hit West End musical Wicked.

In 2002, Her Majesty The Queen awarded her the Order of the British Empire for Services to Drama.

Miriam Margolyes in Dickens’ Women is at:
–  the Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall, THE EDGE® from November 28 to December 2 as part of THE EDGE® International Arts Season;
– the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch on December 4 and 5, and
– The Opera House, Wellington from December 7-9.
Book at Ticketek on 0800 TICKETEK or www.ticketek.co.nz. For more information visit www.dickenswomen.com.au  

2012 TOUR 

May 2
Clarence Street Theatre

May 4-6
Bruce Mason Centre

May 8 & 9
Theatre Royal

May 12
Aurora Centre
ON SALE Fri 10 Feb

May 15
Opera House

May 16
Regent Theatre

May 18 & 19
Opera House

Palmerston North
May 22
Regent on Broadway

May 24
Hawkes Bay Opera House

New Plymouth
May 26
TSB Theatre

Pianist: John Martin

Theatre , Solo ,

Sublime character acting and acerbic commentary

Review by Terry MacTavish 18th May 2012

I first fell in love with the comic genius of Miriam Margolyes as the deliciously appalling Spanish Infanta determined to seduce Prince Edmund, the original Blackadder. So I was tickled to discover that my students were packing the Regent because they adored her as Professor Sprout in Harry Potter. No matter when you caught up with her illustrious career on stage, film and television, your infatuation will be rekindled by the sheer brilliance of Dickens’ Women.

Margolyes has created this remarkable solo show, which for years has toured the world, to spotlight the women both in the novels and the real life of Charles Dickens. “The greatest man who ever wrote English prose,” she has called him.  “I love him and I hate him.”  It is this passionate, conflicted response to the man and his work that fires her performance, still fresh and vivid after all this time. The only change I discern from the show as I saw it in Sydney, 2007, is that her hair has blossomed into a mass of white thistledown, striking against the black curtains.

We have hardly been deprived of Charles Dickens in his bicentenary year (even our Dunedin Public Art Gallery presenting some excellent readings to accompany its lovely Haunts of Dickens exhibition), but Margolyes has something unique to offer.

Of course she is acknowledged as a superb actor at the height of her powers, but for this work she has collaborated with director Sonia Fraser to devise a well-researched script that is far more than a selection of extracts. Each is carefully chosen, and interwoven with acerbic commentary, to give insight into the great writer’s own life; in particular his relationships with women.

First, Dickens’ mother, never really forgiven for encouraging his debtor father to force him back into the boot-blacking factory that seemed an end to all his dreams. Still, he later took care of his mother “who was left to me when my father died. I never had anything left to me but relations.” She is the inspiration for Mrs Micawber, resolved never to desert her feckless husband, yet given surprising dignity by Margolyes.

Dickens was ultimately less generous to the girl he first fell in love with, coy Maria Beadnell, held sentimentally in his heart to become the model for child-wife Dora.  Later, when he had met Maria again and found to his horror that nineteen years had not treated her kindly, he took vicious revenge in his portrait of fat and foolish Flora Finching. This was the award-winning role that Margolyes played in the film of Little Dorrit, and she does full justice to it now, making Flora’s silliness as heartbreaking as it is ridiculous.

Dickens retained an unfortunate penchant for nubile young girls, particularly the sisters of his wife Catherine, whose figure doubtless suffered by comparison, producing as it did twelve children. Margolyes is withering in her scorn of the soppily angelic girl-heroines he created in their image, though she does give us an amusing snippet of Little Nell admiring wax works.

Margolyes deals most compassionately with poor Catherine, punished by her husband for not managing to remain a delicate seventeen-year-old, and eventually banished so Dickens could be with young actress Ellen Ternan. Called ‘the invisible woman’ by her biographer Claire Tomalin, Ellen must have led a strange and lonely life, concealed as she was to protect Dickens’ reputation. As Margoyles points out, his most passionate, enduring relationship was with his respectable Victorian public, and he was chiefly concerned that nothing should threaten that.

What could be merely a very good lecture on Dickens becomes a dazzling experience as Margolyes brings his characters alive with humour and consummate skill. The audience responds rapturously. The scene of pure lust between revolting Mr Bumble the Beadle and repulsive Mrs Corney the Matron is the hilarious highlight for most, and indeed it is extraordinary to see how absolutely she transforms for each character, mouth twisted ingratiatingly up for the lady, complacently down for the gentleman.

The quirky physicality she gives Miss Mowcher, the dwarf manicurist, commands my admiration, as does the quiet intensity she brings to the portrait of Sapphic Miss Wade, sympathetic and ahead of its time. And I love Mrs Lirriper from Household Words, affectionately modelled on Dickens’ grandmother, with her mirthful tale of the ‘willing’ maid with the ineradicable smut on her nose.

Courageously Margolyes finishes on a comparatively low-key and sorrowful note, with poor demented Miss Flite reciting the terrible names of her caged birds, from Bleak House, that searing indictment of England’s corrupt legal system. The audience is spellbound, and at the end, deeply appreciative.

Margolyes works this magic with just a few chairs, a lectern modelled on Dickens’ own, and gentle piano music by John Martin to aid the atmosphere. She fills the vastness of the Regent with apparent ease, her voice hardly less audible when the sound system briefly falters. Dickens ruined his own health through exhausting public readings of his works, but she barely seems to work up a sweat, despite the energy with which she prances, struts and glides across the stage, her gorgeously expressive face embracing every emotion with gusto.

As a character actor Margolyes is sublime, but she is also possessed of a powerful, charismatic personality that has made her one of the world’s most sought-after talk show guests, each interview more magnificently outrageous than the last, culminating in her devastatingly frank revelations on Graham Norton in 2011. 

So without doubt, an unforgettable performance by an actor who has become an international treasure. And what a world of gammon and spinnage it is, that Margolyes isn’t Dame Miriam yet, ain’t it? 


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An indefatigable treasure of the stage

Review by Gail Tresidder 10th May 2012

Ms Margolyes, consummate actor, breathes gusts of freshness in to Charles Dickens the man, his relationships and the host of created characters who shared his world.  

Her performance is an amazing feat of memory and her stage presence magnetic.  Dickens life story is told: a feckless father; his dreadful time in Warrens Blacking Factory from the age of 12; as a reporter at the House of Commons; his meeting and falling in love with Catherine Hogarth, the wife who, after producing ten children for him, was turned away from her home, living apart from her children for the rest of her life. 

He comes across as a vain social climber with romantic delusions, especially about his sister-in-law Mary who died aged 17 and was the model for many of his virginal heroines – Little Nell, Lucie Manette, etc. 

Although egocentric he was undoubtedly a genius and Margolyes, who regards Dickens as at least equal to Shakespeare, pays him the compliment of giving talking, walking, laughing, crying life to 23 of the 2000 individuals who people his novels.

The stage is simple: a few chairs, a lectern and a photograph of Dickens; to the side John Martin and a grand piano.  Martin’s intro-playing of old favourite ‘I Love You Still’ sets exactly the right mood and his contribution is subtle throughout.  Lighting is also unobtrusive.

There are reminders of the late great Anna Russell in the way Margolyes engages with the audience. “Well, you would, wouldn’t you?” she asks us, though I doubt if even Russell could carry off the flirtation scene from Oliver Twist between Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney, matron of the work house, as does Margolyes.  With sheer delight and perfect timing, hopping from one chair to the other, first as Bumble then as Corney, utilising her whole body and a positive army of expressions, she has the audience enchanted, horrified at the cosiness of Bumble and Corney’s callousness to the poor at their gate, and also convulsed with laughter. Brilliant. 

Looking at her extensive touring programme, not only is Margolyes a treasure of the stage, she is also indefatigable. She has seven more performances in New Zealand and thirty-nine in the UK, USA and Canada to come, in honour of a  man who was born two hundred years ago – a great writer whose stories Miriam Margolyes has loved since childhood.  


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Margolyes' outstanding performance

Review by Lynn Freeman 17th Dec 2007

Sometimes you get the feeling that visiting West End stars who bring shows to the antipodes are only really in it for a free holiday and some spare cash.  Not Miriam Margolyes.  She’s performed Dicken’s Women dozens if not hundreds of times, but other than being word perfect, you just know she loves these characters she brings so absolutely and convincingly to life, men and women. 

She’s a woman of character, in looks and personality, and no one writes characters like Charles Dickens.  A match made in heaven.  But far from being a series of enacted readings, Margolyes intertwines performances with biographical information about the really rather unpleasant and downright cruel Mr Dickens, which is only partially offset but learning about his horrid childhood.  His writing is the product of that childhood and many of his 17 year old heroines the product of his fixation with his sister-in-law who died at that age (girls Miriam says, with twinkling eyes, she finds ‘icky’). 

Margolyes doesn’t need fancy make up and numerous costume changes – she can transform in the flick of an eye from poor loyal Mrs Macawber to the cruelly terrifying Miss Havisham.  But many of the delights of this show rest in portrayals of the lesser known female characters, one a lesbian, another a widow being pursued by a lusty policeman – and when you know the people some of the characters are modelled on, it just adds to the pleasure of seeing a an outstanding performer revelling in the work of a master wordsmith.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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Impressive, amusing and insightful if not moving

Review by John Smythe 08th Dec 2007

A self-confessed show-off with a passion for her work and the writings of Charles Dickens, ebullient character actress Miriam Margolyes has managed to corral her phenomenal talent in Dickens’ Women to compelling effect.

Developing the show with co-writer and director Sonia Fraser, their goal was “to explore the man himself, using his creations as windows into his life.” But with 15 novels and many other literary works to his credit, containing 989 named characters, not to mention the 14,000 letters he wrote, that was a premise for many hours of material.

The focus here is on his attitudes to – and relationships with – women as perceived through those he wrote, with additional quotes from his personal writing and other historical research. That Dickens never forgot, let alone forgave, anything that happened in his eventful life seems indisputable. And of course this was fuel to his creative fire.

In a variety of extracts, comprising first-person monologues and third-person descriptive passages with dialogue, characters are drawn from a dozen Dickens titles: the better-known Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Bleak House; the lesser-known Sketches by Boz, The Uncommercial Traveller and Mrs Lirripers’ Lodgings.

But the highly dramatised melodrama and sentimentality we readily associate with Dickens is not the stuff of this anthology. A roll-call of “young, beautiful and good” 17-year-old women is used to illustrate the proposition that he was fixated on his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, who fell backwards into his arms, dead, on the staircase they were ascending at home after a night out at the theatre.

Margolyes finds them “rather icky”, although – slipping chameleon-like in and out of each character – she does allow us to enjoy Little Nell’s visit to Mrs Jarley’s travelling waxworks in The Old Curosity Shop.

The ubiquitous themes of class and economic security are sheeted home to Dickens being born into the social-climbing lower middle class, his grandfather being charged with embezzlement, his father (the source of Wilkins McCawber in David Copperfield) and everyone else in the family being put in a debtor’s prison while Charles was sent to work in a boot blacking factory.

Thus our appreciation of Dickens’ pungent prose becomes even richer. To quote just one example (from Dombey and Son): “Paul sat as if he has taken life unfurnished and the upholsterer was never coming.” And that novel’s Mrs Pipchin – whose name was finally settled after many other shapes and sizes of chin were considered – is revealed as based on Dickens’ London landlady at the time his father was in prison.

As a reporter at the Houses of Parliament, Dickens experienced the torments of teased-out yet unrequited love – for one Maria Beadnell – that resonates in David Copperfield’s love for Dora, and gave rise to Flora Finching in Little Dorritt.  But rather than assert the same provenance for the emotional cruelty Estella visits in Pip in Great Expectations (1861) under the formidable influence of Miss Havisham, Margolyes and Fraser assert – in the show’s penultimate sequence – not only that Estella is based on the actress Ellen Turnan, whom Dickens met and fell for in 1857, but that the bitter and emotionally stunted Miss Havisham is based on Dickens himself!

His grandmother leads us to Mrs Lirripers’ dissertation on the mystery of the black smudge that always found its way to ‘Willing Sophy’s nose.  Mrs Skewton in Dombey and Son (“tumbled into ruins like a house of painted cards”) and Rosa Dartle in David Copperfield (“I concluded in my own mind that she was about thirty years of age, and that she wished to be married. She was a little dilapidated, like a house, with having been so long to let …”) are offered as evidence of Dickens’ underlying misogyny.

I’m not sure how valid it is to claim such evidence from the way he wrote his fictional women, even if many had elements in common with real people. Dickens was a keen observer of humanity and social satirist, after all, and he was equally ruthless in his depiction of men. But his dismissive treatment of his real-life wife, Catherine, who bore him 12 children in 16 years, and his description of her as a “donkey”, does allow scrutiny of his personal behaviour in relation to the moral judgements implicit in his fiction.

That he meant no harm to those he used as models in his work is borne out in the anecdote concerning the dwarf hairdresser and manicurist Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield. When Dickens’ wife’s chiropodist, Mrs Jane Seymour Hill, recognised herself in the rather grotesquely described character and threatened to sue for libel, Dickens renovated the character radically for the remainder of his serialised story, rendering her far too boring for Margolyes to spend any more time with.  

The most surprising segment is an insight to the character of Miss Wade in Little Dorrit, revealed as an unfulfilled lesbian whose complexity of deep-felt emotions through an early formative experience is, though heavily skewed by subjectivity, delivered with compelling compassion by both Dickens and Margolyes.  

While the second hour opens with another richly funny two-character scene, from Oliver Twist, in which Mr Bumble the beadle woos widowed workhouse matron Mrs Corney over more than one cup of tea – enhanced by a bravura display of non-verbal expressions – the production ends with a poignant portrait of Bleak House‘s Miss Flite, waiting vainly at the court of Chancery for a favourable judgement that will, if it ever comes, resolve her financial woes.

Accompanied by Australian pianist John Martin – on a simple stage setting of rostra, 3 chairs of varying style, a stool and reading desk that replicates one used by Dickens on his tour of the USA, all watched over by a portrait of the man himself – Miriam Margolyes entrances her deeply attentive audience with an impressive, amusing and insightful performance.

That it may not be described as moving (although a friend did tell me the one thing she was moved by was the description of Catherine Dickens’ fate) is due both to the anthological nature of the evening and the avoidance of sentimentality. What we leave with, then, is plenty to think about concerning Dickens the writer, and a great appreciation of Margolyes’ technically exemplary skills, not least in enunciating and projecting every syllable without ever sounding contrived or insincere.

This tour of Australia and New Zealand ends tomorrow (9 Dec) in Wellington, but it’s been around for years and will doubtless remain in Miriam Margolyes’ repertoire.


e.v December 8th, 2007

Miriam revealed on the "Good Morning" show (yeck!) during the week that she is going to move to her partners home country of Australia when her partner retires. She expressed a wish to come back over here so we may see more of her in the future!

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A treasure that must be seen

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 08th Dec 2007

Like Mr. Vincent Crummles, who found difficulty in finding language to describe his actress daughter, the infant phenomenon, I find myself in the same quandary in trying to describe Miriam Margolyes’s performance of 23 characters, nearly all of them women, from the works of Charles Dickens.

As Mr. Crummles says of his daughter, "She must be seen, sir – seen – to be ever so faintly appreciated." Wellingtonians have only three more performances (two today, one on Sunday) to appreciate a one woman show that I rank right up there alongside Emlyn Williams’ Dickens and Dylan Thomas, Michael MacLiammoir’s Wilde and Shaw, and Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, all of whom appeared here, albeit many years ago.

In a performance that encompasses the wonderful caricatures that Dickens drew with such comic exaggeration and truth (Mr. Bumble with Mrs. Corney both on heat from Oliver Twist, for example) to the achingly sad cameo from Bleak House with which Miriam Margolyes ends her show, and the essential details of her hero’s life, she draws her audience onto the stage and into her passion for the works of Charles Dickens. She assists in creating a two-way traffic in imagination and concentration.

Her voice is clear and sharp and effortlessly fills the Opera House whether she is having fun with the "icky" heroines that Dickens felt he had to write or portraying all the suppressed and never to be forgotten love of one woman for another that is remarkably modern and unusual in a Victorian novel.

Her face has such mobility and is so expressive that she immediately creates a character with a realism that is remarkable. It is as if we are watching everything in one huge close-up and on a stage as large as the Opera House this is an art that we are in danger of losing even in much smaller theatres.

Miriam Margolyes’s performance is a phenomenon and like all phenomena should be witnessed and treasured.


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History, Fiction and the Journey In Between

Review by Nik Smythe 02nd Dec 2007

The set provides clues to the experience of a uniquely all-encompassing evening.  The various different kinds of chairs foretell the rather theatrical series of literary characters to follow.  The down-stage podium implies a lecture or literary seminar, whilst the piano stage right suggests something in a celebrity variety show style. 

And so it is.  A calming, scene-setting recital from pianist John Martin precedes the fading of the house lights and the entrance of solo actress Miriam Margolyes.  From her opening turn as Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit (‘the sort of woman you’d bury for nothing, and do it neatly’, according to the story’s undertaker), the arena is transfixed and enchanted as she relays, through numerous stories and associated roles, her obvious personal passion for Britain’s second most famous author.  

Margolyes co-scripted Dickens’ Women with Sonia Fraser, who also directed the performance to a richly concentrated distillation of history, fiction and the journey in between.  As the name suggests, the play is primarily concerned with the female element of the Charles Dickens’ works, which are analysed and explained in the context of the women in the author’s own life. 

We are witness to Dickens the lover, the father, the human rights advocate, the social climber, the scoundrel.  Observing the eclectic range of character samples, we can see he was clearly not afraid to portray women with formidable intelligence and power.  Yet at the same time it seems he was somewhat chauvinistic in his innate ideology, to the point where virtual Dickens groupie Margolyes herself said that during the research period ‘if he hadn’t made us laugh so much, he would have made us very angry’.

In all there are twenty three characters; almost entirely women, although opening the second act, Mr Bumble and his seethingly salacious courting of Mrs Courtney in Oliver Twist gets one of the highest scores on the laughometer.  Anyone concerned by Dickens’ sometimes unflattering portrayal of women need look no further than this bloated beadle to see the author was just as, if not more, merciless in his representation of men… although arguably Mrs Courtney comes off the greater fool for acceding to Mr Bumble’s odiously amorous advances.

As for the romantic leading ladies, generally angelic teenagers of purest innocence and perfection allegedly all based on a singular beloved young relation, Margolyes paints a vivid picture but glosses over the actual characters on account of their being icky and altogether less interesting or amusing than the grotesques that more famously inhabit the author’s fifteen novels.

Miriam Margolyes is very well known, even more by her face and her voice than by name, for her many film roles as an actress and animation voice artist.  The dutiful passion with which she inhabits her considerable roles, and the genuine heart with which she delivers her historical lecture, make it clear this is a very lucky woman doing exactly what she wants for a living, all over the world.  John Martin’s elegant piano accompaniment highlights the compelling performance just so, and the experience is complete.

More curious trivia: Dickens made much more money doing public readings than he did from his published writing.  Like major pop stars of today, where album sales make minimal revenue but act as publicity for when the show comes to town, charging twice or more times the cost of the record, or book, and that’s what pays for the holiday home and swimming pool.  This show might well be regarded as Charles Dickens’ Greatest (female) Hits, according to Margolyes and Fraser.


nik smythe December 6th, 2007

I have heard this said by others who have performed in this room. In fact I can't remember seeing anything in the concert chamber before where the performers didn't use a microphone, and so can only agree that Miriam indeed took the notoriously challenging acoustics and made them her own.

roger hall December 3rd, 2007

, even for one sitting near the back and with declining hearing, I could hear every word. Every Toi Whakaari student should go and hear her.. RH

roger hall December 3rd, 2007

It's a pity Nik didn't mention Miram Margolyes' superb clarity of speech and ability to project. This is a venue that local actors claim has appalling acoustics, yet, even for one sitting near the back and with declining hearing, I could hear every word. Every Toi Whakaari student should go and hear her.

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