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“NICHOLAS II”

“I am astonished to hear this news,” said Nicholas. “Going to America! You had no such thing in contemplation when I was with you.”

“No,” replied Crummles. “I hadn’t then.” --"Nicholas Nickleby”

By now they were supposed to be in America. But the Boston date fell through, leaving the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby” troupe all dressed up with nowhere to go. So a stopgap booking was arranged at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, where business has only been fair.

It’s rather a letdown for the company, after the standing ovations back at Stratford and the raves from the London critics, much better than the reviews they gave the original 1980 production. (“Perhaps they didn’t want to get caught out again,” suggests co-director Trevor Nunn.) Then, too, most of the actors have already said their goodbys to England for the next nine months: sold their cars, rented out their flats, put their love affairs on hold. Mentally, they’re in the States already. It’s disconcerting to wake up and find . . . Manchester.

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Ah, well, the show must go on. Today the company is performing Parts I and II of “Nicholas” back to back, keeping them in the theater until midnight. As they come through the Palace stage door, their eyes go to the callboard. Any word on car rentals in Los Angeles?

L.A.--Emerald City. Thirty-two performances at the Ahmanson Theatre (previews begin Wednesday). Not quite so prestigious as New York, perhaps, but the company also understands that it will be playing there, if the tour catches on. And why shouldn’t it? Broadway only saw “Nicholas” for four or five months the first time out, and the rest of America never saw it, except on TV.

Nor have most of them ever seen America--except on TV. That’s why it signed on for the tour. They plan to take the sun at Malibu, to gape at the Grand Canyon and to be witty in Manhattan penthouses. “It’ll be amazin’ to see parts of America and get paid for it,” says John Lynch as he makes up before the show.

Lynch, 24, plays Nicholas’ crippled friend Smike. He is as slight a lad in person as he seems on stage, and today he’s also fighting a cold--not enough to keep him out of the show, but enough to hurt his energy. “The only time you set your performance in advance is when you’re not feelin’ the part well,” he tells a visitor. “Like today.”

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Today’s performance may have other problems. David Delve, who plays the greasy schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, is out with laryngitis. Understudy Colin Campbell got through last night’s show all right (“Nicholas” has four permanent understudies, with everyone else also covering certain roles) but he needs more rehearsal. Assistant director Cordelia Monsey is running lines with him right now.

Then there’s Jimmy Yuill, who plays young Wackford Squeers. Yuill’s wife is about to have their first child back in London. This has led to many backstage phone calls during the show and one or two mad false-alarm dashes back to the city. “If something doesn’t happen soon, Jimmy may use up his paternity leave,” observes tour manager Michael Hyatt.

None of these situations approaches being critical, but Hyatt and stage manager Michael Townsend must keep an eye on them. “Nicholas” is an enormously intricate show to run. Its 32 actors juggle something like 130 speaking parts. If someone falls out of the cast in the middle of a performance, roles and costumes must be traded up and down the line, and a chain reaction of error could develop. It’s always a relief when midnight comes.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the performance will begin in 15 minutes.” The visitor goes out front and takes his seat in the beautifully refurbished Palace Theatre. It’s only half full, but the ushers have put everybody downstairs and it feels like a crowd. An attentive one, too, as the show gets rolling. If Manchester audiences don’t cheer, they do listen.

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At the Palace, you can listen. It’s a big house, but every word comes off the stage clearly, with no need for amplification. (What did British theater architects know in 1920 that American theater architects don’t know today?) And these actors are worth listening to. This isn’t a mail-order stock company but a genuine ensemble, cast and rehearsed to Stratford standards.

The faces are different than those of the original company, but you can see them as Dickens’ characters. If Michael Siberry makes Nicholas more outgoing and hopeful than Roger Rees did, that simply underlines how much Nicholas has to learn about the world. The company tells the tale in a more black-and-white way than before, but it’s still “Nicholas Nickleby,” from the muffin scene to the intermission anthem. The audience streams out for the dinner break full of the play, ready for more.

But why is “Nicholas” in Manchester at all? Hadn’t Nunn and co-director John Caird made a pledge on the night the original production opened on Broadway never, never to revive it?

The visitor had asked Nunn the question in London the day before, during a rehearsal break from his new West End musical, “Chess"--which at that stage of its preparation seemed to need all of Nunn’s attention.

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“Of course I’m prepared to talk about ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ ” Nunn had said. “ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is never out of my thoughts. Why are we reviving it? The passage of time and the depth of the provocation.”

Translation: money. After five years, there was still a market for “Nicholas” and the RSC wasn’t keen on letting some other theater capitalize on it. (The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival had done a disturbingly capable production in Chicago.) As a nonprofit theater with an eternal deficit, the RSC needed extra revenue. If American management (i.e., the Shubert Organization) would back a tour, Nunn and Caird would put the show together again.

The deal was made and the planning began. “Oh, God, no! Don’t make me do this thing!” was designer John Napier’s immediate response to the task of taking “Nicholas” out of mothballs. But a certain psyching-up process ensued.

“Nicholas” had been born as a collective improvisation. Its creators couldn’t discover it again. But they could approach it as (Nunn’s phrase) “a theatrical artifact, something that could be rehearsed like a normal play. One of the pleasures was to discover how strong David Edgar’s script was: a text that could withstand analysis, not just something to help us cover over the cracks.”

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The task was to “get back what we had before” without trying to turn the new cast into a carbon copy of the old one. Caird and Nunn watched the TV “Nicholas” and made a list of scenes they wanted to stress--the pluck of Nicholas’ sister, Kate, for instance.

Napier went back to his original plans, raided the RSC stockroom for props and furniture and tried to figure out a way to make his set more portable without losing its heavy, primitive, lashed-together look.

Rehearsals took 10 weeks, after which the show played Stratford-on-Avon for two months, Newcastle for one month, and now--with the Palace filling up again after the dinner break--Manchester.

A show seen from backstage is another world, conditioned by what’s happening out front, but independent of it, too. That’s particularly true of a show that unfolds as leisurely as “Nicholas” does. Nobody has time to laze about, and there are flurries of intense action at the scene-changes, with the show’s four dressers stuffing actors into their costumes like mothers bundling their children off to school.

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At other times, the backstage atmosphere can be almost serene, with the actors strolling quietly to their next checkpoint, like people walking around the fountain in a Mexican town after dinner. It’s the “Nicholas Nickleby” paseo .

Here comes Jimmy Yuill, the father-to-be. His costume makes him look like Tweedledum before he fell off the wall, and his face is full of custard pie, with which he has just been smacked onstage. “I’ll never give up show business,” he grins, toweling off. A conversation about the projected arrival date of Baby Yuill begins. (She, or he, already has a passport to the States.) Suddenly Yuill looks dismayed. “Oh, gosh, I’m supposed to be on,” he says, and dashes for the stage.

Here is Michael Siberry, who plays Nicholas. No, he says, these all-day performances aren’t especially fatiguing, not as bad as a play where you have to sit around in the dressing room twiddling your thumbs. (As a younger RSC actor--he’s 29--he’s had some experience with that.) “The momentum keeps you going. Then, at the end, you feel quite virtuous. The problem is trying to find someplace to eat at the end of the show.”

Here is Colin Campbell, the understudy, sweating through a quick costume change with dresser Lorna Cook. Shirt, trousers, braces, tie--tie, tie, where is it?--top hat. What else? Shoes. Oh, God, they’re tied. Is that his cue? And he’s off.

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Here is DeNica Fairman, who plays Kate Nickleby. “We’re all a little panicked tonight. They say there’s been a second nuclear plant just gone up in Russia.”

Here is John Lynch, slumped on a bench, looking completely done-in. An assistant wipes off his face with a wet towel. His fever is up and there’s talk of calling a doctor, but he says he’ll be OK if he can just sit there.

Nervous-making stuff, but stage manager Townsend calls his cues calmly and, out front, the world of “Nicholas Nickleby” continues to turn, almost as if it didn’t need actors. Sooner than one would have thought--Siberry was right about the show’s momentum--there are no pages left for the prompter to turn and the actors are taking their bows to a fairly respectable ovation, for Manchester. Yuill makes a dash to call his wife. “No, Jimmy,” says Hyatt. “One more.”

Next morning, Hyatt and Townsend report that John Lynch is feeling better and that Baby Yuill has still not arrived back in London. (He has since done so, and his name is Calum.)

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“I wasn’t worried that John wouldn’t finish the show,” Townsend says. “When an actor is really sick, he almost always finishes the performance. But you wouldn’t believe what can go wrong if someone forgets to take a chair off at a certain point.”

Colin Campbell comes to the theater early, having heard that Delve is going to be out with laryngitis for a whole week. He has some ideas on Squeers he’d like to try tonight, now that he’s feeling more secure about the blocking. “Squeers isn’t just a figure of evil, he’s a guy , do you know what I mean?”

Hubert Rees has come in early too. He was with the original “Nicholas Nickleby” company, and estimates that by now “I’ve given 10% of my life to it. One’s had to adapt to the new company a bit, but basically it’s the same show. I’m going to treat the tour as a working holiday. A hard-working holiday. Would you know if there is still a Hollywood Cricket Club?”


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