Vanity Fair 1983 (British Premiere) / 1984 / 1985

Previous Performances

Produced by Cheek by Jowl

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Cast in order of speaking

Andrew CollinsMiss Pinkerton, Mr Sedley, Rawdon Crawley, Isidor, Miss Glorvina O'Dowd
Martin TurnerJemima Pinkerton, Joseph Sedley, Mr Osborne, Raggles
Amanda HarrisAmelia Sedley, Mrs Raggles
Sadie ShimminRebecca Sharp
Duncan BellGeorge Osborne, Sir Pitt Crawley, Marquis of Steyne, William Dobbin, Pitt Crawley, Pauline, Lord Southdown, Correspondent
Simon DormandyMrs Sedley, Miss Crawley, Mrs Major O'Dowd, Marshioness of Steyne Anne White

DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
Score and Musical DirectionJeremy Sams
Company Stage ManagerNick Kidd
CostumesKim Kenny


Vanity Fair is nowhere near Quality Street. Those Napoleonic uniforms, cutaway coats and high Empire-line waists have hoodwinked readers into believing Thackeray a softer touch than Dickens. But if he lacks the younger man's gift for hard-nosed journalistic thrust, Thackeray's detached irony displays the gentle incisiveness of, say, a Waugh. His view of recent history in Vanity Fair was as sardonically unsparing in its depiction of a society's foibles and follies, as jabbingly disrespectful of sacred cows, as any of our modern moral satires.

Cheek by Jowl have arrived in Covent Garden for a season and the strengths of an acting company of (here) five men and three women are soon apparent. The novel's narration is shared between them (in their Pericles, also on offer soon, Ancient Gower's chorus is similarly distributed). Each player takes several roles; far from slowing the action down this leads to a cinematic fluidity as when the cold splendours of the Marquess of Steyne's town mansion seamlessly turns into the impoverished Sedley's genteel refuge and back, simply by means of the same actors switching character in the course of conversation.

Declan Donnellan's production at times adopts a split screen technique with characters on either side of the stage separately conveying a scene that in fact they share, pieces of a visual jigsaw. They stylisation leads to gloriously desperate Glorvina O'Dowd setting her cap at the gallant Dobbin as she warbles Irish ditties from the bearded mouth of Andrew Collins. There are moments which remind us that such stylisation is a hair's breadth from village hall romps: some of the other travesty parts are perilously close to pantomime dames; but the company's typical virtues of intelligence, vigour and clarity strip the fripperies from what is revealed as a pretty nasty set of grasping egotists.

The cheval mirror that recurs as a motif throughout the action sums up the self-regard of this society. When her disillusioned husband smashes the glass with her jewels, not just Becky but the assembled cast scream in pain, as if the soul were lost with the reflection.

Sadie Shimmin has a pushiness that is just right for Becky: she also has the basic good nature that, puzzlingly, makes this repellent little gold digger stubbornly likeable. "I am innocent," she protests when surprised with admirers amidst her hoarded wealth: and you believe it, or rather, you believe that she believes it. This Becky resembles Lulu in her straightforward impulse of her selfishness: she is a natural; totally sincere in the pursuit of her own well being. And slightly common into the bargain.

Duncan Bell's bloodless Steyne has the icy relish of dissolute exhaustion combined with almost contemptuous good breeding: no more milksop, Amanda Harris' Amelia has her moments of gross egotism; and Simon Domandy's loyal Dobbin slipping into the third-person narration to remark, "never had he felt so lonely and so miserable" as he beams brightly at the unattainable, is just right. Only Martin Turner's poltroon Joseph is guyed. Like a Gillray cartoon, out of focus. The company's fidelity to the text is also shown in a rare Andromache (Racine) besides their Pericles. They are worth seeing. Martin Hoyle, Financial Times. 8 January 1985
Cheek by Jowl was founded in 1981 and brings an extraordinary repertory for their tree week Warehouse season. Vanity Fair, Pericles and Andromache, each plays for a week only. The first will be over when you read this, so let me say that if their Shakespeare and their Racine are half as sparkling as their Thackeray they should not be missed.

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod have adapted Vanity Fair, Donnellan also directs, Ormerod designs, making much use of brilliant white as a piece for seven performers who both play the major roles and throw the narrative between them like game of catch. This technique, perfected in the RSCs Nicholas Nickleby enhances the musicality and wit of the language without losing its sense of meaning; it is done with all possible lightness and speed well short of haste.

The seizure of Thackeray's commentary by the very characters about whom, in the novel, it is being made, adds a dimension of radical self awareness that transforms the whole exercise beyond mere animated reading and goes some way to answer those who protest that, however well done, such adaptations from longs novels do not make a play. More about the actors after Pericles next week. Michael Ratcliffe, The Observer. 13 January 1985