When Charles Dickens visited Belfast a second time in 1867, he was 54 years old, but prematurely aged and careworn. A decade of public readings of his work had progressively drained him, as had the guilt and aftershock of separation from his wife Catherine, which he himself had initiated. Yet on he went: a punishing American tour began in December 1867, and two years later he was dead, his constitution burnt out by the demons of perpetual activity which drove him pitilessly forward.
Sam McCready's one-man show about Dickens, part of the year-long Dickens 2012 NI celebrations, takes the afternoon rehearsal for the writer's Belfast reading on January 8, 1867 as its point of focus. The specificity of time is important: it means that the Dickens we see is not the ebullient, eternally high-spirited showman of generic imagination, but a more nuanced impersonation, haunted by the past, slipping rapidly from bonhomie into altogether darker veins of reflection.
McCready manages these almost imperceptible moments of transition with great finesse and subtlety: you barely register the shifts in mood till they have happened, when suddenly you find yourself in a much gloomier alleyway of Dickensian reminiscence. McCready's ability to slip so unobtrusively from light to darkness emphasises what a real and present danger traumatic events from Dickens' past were to his sense of psychological equilibrium. When McCready's face clouds over recollecting the death (aged 17) of the writer's beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, it's clear the pain of loss has been in no way mitigated by thirty years of mourning her. Dickens felt such losses with almost preternatural intensity: no wonder he ran away from them, and had to keep running.
The famous warmth and garrulity of Dickens' character also emerge clearly in McCready's portrait. Dickens adored the stage, especially being centre of it, and he simply can't stop talking to the theatre audience, when he should actually be rehearsing for the evening performance. Again, though, McCready is careful not to over-egg the pudding: a certain stiffness of gait reminds us that Dickens had a bad foot at this period, and though his joie de vivre is glowingly apparent, it doesn't blaze forth uninhibitedly as it might have done twenty years previously.
Still, there's lots of fascinating and typically colourful detail in McCready's script about Dickens' activities in Belfast, gleaned from correspondence and contemporary reports in newspapers. How he walked the sixteen miles to Carrickfergus and back (Dickens habitually hiked distances most of us would nowadays regard as incredible); how he saw the shipyard and hundreds of mastheads jutting skyward on his way back; how he never saw men "cry so undisguisedly" at his readings as they did in Belfast.
On a simple set with just a reading podium, armchairs and some suitcases to support him, McCready rivets the attention, traversing virtually the full gamut of Dickensian emotions and preoccupations, circa 1867. (There's no mention of his intimate, clandestine relationship with the young actress Nelly Ternan, 27 years his junior.) It's a marvellously empathetic piece of acting, and an engrossingly honest, unsensationalised snapshot of a very great writer, and a great, if flawed human being.