Graeae Theatre’s ‘Amy Dorrit’ brings Dicken’s story into contemporary times in an adaptation for radio

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Based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel Little Dorrit, Graeae Theatre Company’s adaptation brings the story up-to-date for radio with the passionate high-energy voices of a disabled, non-disabled and learning disabled cast. Review by Sonali Shah.

A young Asian woman looks up at the camera, her arms folded

Audrey Brisson as Amy Dorrit. Image © Graeae

Moving adroitly from fevered emotion to hilarious one-liners, interspersed with some apt sing-a-long favourites, Amy Dorrit reminds us how social inequalities, financial corruption and selfish games are not themes of the past, but travel through time and across cultures.

Dramatists April de Angelis and Nicola Werenowska bring together the voices of women (and the occasional man) who would otherwise remain silent, weaving together narratives of breaking apart and being united, fighting the fight and winning the battles.

Amy Dorrit (Audrey Brisson), so named after the heroine in Dickens’ novel, is anything but the ‘wimpiest most submissive character in the history of literature’. Her fellow resident, Maggie (Kalijoy Perkins), refers to her as  ‘wonder woman’ with ‘little legs and a big heart’.

Amy has aspirations beyond her horizon and financial means until, one day, she and her family is offered a carrot by Amy’s secret admirer. This triggers a turning point in their lives. But everything comes with a price and, as old Mr Dorrit (John Kelly), sings ‘You can’t always get what you want’.

Amy straddles two worlds – caught between loyalty and responsibility to help those that depend on her, and her own thirst for change.  Her character becomes stronger and bolder over the course of the two episodes, from the shy short devoted daughter forever cleaning up her disabled father’s mess, to a confident sharp-witted passionate leader whose inner resilience keeps her and her followers moving forward.

Graeae Theatre, a company that prides itself for putting D/deaf and disabled artist centre stage, certainly had their work cut out transforming an 800-page novel into two, one hour episodes that have contemporary relevance to 21st Century listeners.

Including the voice of Dickens reciting one-liners from the original narrative, the play reminds us how issues like debt, social divides and injustice are timeless issues, very relevant today in modern Britain with a Conservative government creeping closer and closer to a No Deal Brexit.  Like the original, the Graeae adaptation focuses on the exploitation of the ‘poor’ by those in positions of power, and the endless ‘red tape’ minorities are faced with just to keep their homes.

However, some things are not too clear or convincing. Why are residents with mobility impairments living in a tower block with a broken lift and urine stained stairwells, given the current rigorous health and safety regs. It is also unclear when the lift is working and when it is not. There is also no mention of ILF, Personal Assistants, Access to Work – all part of disabled people’s stories in modern UK and integral to their battle.

Further, and disappointingly, this ‘inclusive’ cast fails to include an artist with a vocal impairment despite the plethora of talent out there – Robert Softley-Gale, Colin Young, Francesca Martinez and No Voice guy to name a few. Doing so would most certainly challenge the preconceptions of radio play lovers of the 21st Century.

Nevertheless, the characters in this adaptation all have unique and memorable personalities, punctuated by the unlikely catchy soundtrack and some surprisingly hilarious dialogue.

Amy Dorrit is a Naked Production, directed by Polly Thomas and Jenny Sealey for BBC Radio 4. Episode 1 was originally aired on 30th December 2018; and Episode 2 on 6th January 2019.

Listen again to Amy Dorrit here or on Radio 4 for the next 27 days