Pip Utton is Charles Dickens
The dramatist has taken on Hitler and others - now he explores the inequalities of Victorian society as the beloved novelist
'If no one was going to discover me, I should do it myself,' the dramatist Pip Utton wrote on his website. His words might seem either desperate or naive, but since Utton launched his one-man play Adolf at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, he has more than fulfilled that ambition. Since then, he has regularly toured Europe playing an ever-expanding range of characters.
In this way, Utton has brought to life various historical and fictional characters, from the painter Francis Bacon to Adolf Hitler, from rocker Roy Orbison to Victor Hugo's downtrodden hunchback, Quasimodo. It's just Pip, his script and a suitcase full of characters. To the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn, he brings Charles Dickens.
Utton doesn't just play Dickens, he becomes Dickens. Having consigned Hitler's ruddy complexion and Nazi uniform to the suitcase, Utton assumes his latest character - Dickens, the beloved novelist, social reformer, journalist and commentator - with a finely crafted period beard and moustache and dressed in an elegant Victorian suit.
'There's a big difference between playing a character from history and impersonating one,' says Utton. 'When you're playing a historical character the way I do - although I try to look approximately like them - it's more important to create the feel of the character, so that people can suspend disbelief, even if they know the character has been dead for decades. That's the skill of getting it right.'
Utton easily breaks the fourth wall, and allows Dickens to address the audience, as if they were the people who encountered the author on one of his famed literary tours. He stands behind a lectern and reads from his novels, portraying - in a nice bit of layered performance - such unforgettable characters as Oliver Twist's Bill Sykes. Dickens also muses about the things he loves and hates, and, particularly, his passionate campaign to reform the horrific inequalities of Victorian life.
Indeed, chronology is flexible, allowing Dickens to discuss his very death and make critical points regarding 21st century society. He runs the full emotional gamut, galvanized in his belief in social change, energized by the love of his audience, yet fearful of his own mortality: the sum of the man.
By speaking through and with the voices of his characters, Utton has become a cultural commentator in his own right, perhaps most successfully in Adolf. 'Using my theatre company, I want to produce and tour small-scale accessible theatre that not only entertains but also gives audiences a bit of ‘grey matter’ exercise,' he exlains. 'I want the productions I am involved in to encourage audiences in their appreciation of live theatre.'
Being a one-man band may have its drawbacks, and success did not come overnight, but on the whole, it's a good life. 'On a practical level, touring throughout the year, I get to keep all the fees, and don't have to share it with anybody. And I can travel on my own, which I quite enjoy.'
In jest, but not inaccurately, he adds that eternal truth of luvvies, which is especially appropriate for Utton: 'And it's the same old thing of vocal actors wanting to show off with vocal pyrotechnics. We love our own voices. Give an actor a script and he'll play every part in it, given half the chance.'
Asked whether playing these characters comes easy to him, Utton muses for a time. 'I worry about them before I perform them, but then I just enjoy them,' he admits. 'Or I enjoy most of them. I enjoyed playing Hitler, Chaplin. Francis Bacon is just a dream to play. I'm frightened still when playing Orbison. It terrifies me.'
While he has a formidable command of costuming and makeup effects, Utton uses minimal staging to allow audiences to focus on the characters themselves. 'It's not a Spitting Image impersonation,' he says. 'It's not a sketch, where you can create the character with just the look. You have to get all the physicality, the word structure, the cadence right.'
Utton is careful in selecting his characters, and what he can do with them, and it seems evident that political and social concerns are a significant factor in his creative choices. A clip from Adolf on Utton's website shows not the cliched ranting madman (who is so easily dismissed as a monstrous one-off), but an ordinary man, not so remote from more than a few modern politicians.
In Bacon, Utton portrays a gay artist from a time when social acceptance was still scant, and in Charles Dickens, a social reformer who had everything to lose by standing up for the poor against the Establishment.
Dickens did not live in a better time than us, but he showed that it is possible to effect change. The dreaded world of the workhouses and many other horrors we associate with Victorian England were on their way out in his time, ushered not least by Dickens himself. As portrayed by Utton, Dickens asks that this be our memory of him: a man who changed the lives of people who fell through the cracks of their society.
Such is Utton's personal conviction as a performer, and such are the reactions of previous audiences, that his Lisburn show feels like our only chance not just to see Pip Utton, but to meet Dickens himself.
Pip Utton is Charles Dickens comes to the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn on May 27.