Charles Dickens, forty five years old and married, falls passionately in love with Nelly Ternan, an actress almost thirty years his junior. After a long affair which ends only with Dickens’ death in 1870, Nelly marries and has two children, but she carries with her thirteen clandestine years to explain away. In 1922, her son resolves to uncover the truth. Inspired by Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman: The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, Little Nell is an enthralling play about the great Victorian novelist, his little-known mistress and their legacy.
Little Nell was first presented at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in June 2007, with the following cast:
SIR HENRY DICKENS – Barry Stanton
GEOFFREY ROBINSON – Tim Pigott-Smith
ELLEN TERNAN – Loo Brealey
CHARLES DICKENS – Michael Pennington
GEORGE ROBINSON – Edward Bennett
REV BENHAM – Tony Haygarth
Director: Peter Hall
Set Design: Simon Higlett
Read Simon Gray’s account of writing Little Nell in The Guardian
Review by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, 14th July 2007.
A gripping tale of Dickens’s secret affair
“Years ago, when Peter Hall was still director of the National Theatre, he commissioned Simon Gray to write a play about Charles Dickens. The piece proved abortive and Gray returned the advance. Decades on, the dramatist has splendidly honoured the spirit, if not the letter, of the old agreement with this fine new play about Dickens’s secret affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. It began when Dickens was 45 and she was 17, and lasted 13 years until his death in 1870.
The relationship has been the subject of a biography by Claire Tomalin, and Gray acknowledges that his own work has been inspired by hers. But fears that Gray might be merely pillaging the work of another proves unfounded.
Yes, this 90-minute play, originally broadcast on Radio 4, tells the story that Tomalin uncovered. But Little Nell is much more than plodding biodrama. It’s a deeply felt highly perceptive piece about the devastation caused by betrayal and adultery.
What helps make Little Nell so vivid is its double time perspective. We watch Dickens’s seduction of the young actress, but the scenes in which we see the progress of the affair, and Ternan’s later marriage to a headmaster, are intercut with a drama set in 1922. In this, Ternan’s son Richard by her marriage to the headmaster visits one of Dickens’s own sons, a successful solicitor, Sir Henry. Richard bluntly asks whether his mother was mistress to the great writer, and is pole-axed by the answer.
The play’s most touching scene comes when old Sir Henry and middle-aged Richard find themselves stricken with grief by all the emotional hurt caused by their parents. Gray is a writer with a louche exterior and a moral core, and his play’s analysis of the consequences of deceit is as unsparing as it is moving.
Peter Hall directs a gripping production, cleverly designed by Simon Higlett, of a play that packs a great deal into its brief running time. Michael Pennington captures the bravura of Dickens, while Loo Brealey as Nelly suggests a young woman who realises she is both betrayer and betrayed. Tim Pigott-Smith has rarely been better as Ternan’s pained, puzzled son, and there is outstanding support from Barry Stanton and Edward Bennett.
A London transfer must be arranged to a West End in sore need of such intelligent and moving drama.
Little Nell is now available as a Faber Contemporary Classic in Simon Gray: Plays 5. To order a copy on special offer at 25% discount please contact Faber and use the code GRAYPLAYS.
Little Nell is also published in the following edition:
Little Nell (Faber and Faber 2006 ISBN 978-0-571-23424-0)
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