Dickens at the Ulster Hall

Sam McCready's one-man show recalls Charles Dickens's three visits to Belfast

Charles Dickens bounds on stage, face alight, arms open wide to receive the adoration of his audience. He removes his cape and top hat and sets down his little leather case. Turning to face the assembled masses, he leans into the crowd – shaking hands, smiling, exchanging greetings and private asides.

He has instilled in each person the belief that, in this brief moment of contact with the literary master, he or she is the only audience member who matters in this packed room. In return, they hang on his every word and gesture. There’s no doubting it, the man is a superstar.

Before his grand entrance, through a series of atmospheric black and white photographic projections, the audience was taken on a trip down memory lane, into a booming city full of magnificent concert halls, churches, theatres, assembly rooms, parks and gardens. This is the Belfast that Charles Dickens visited three times to give celebrated readings from his novels and short stories.

In tribute to the bi-centenary of the birth of one of the greatest writers in the English language, Sam McCready has created another of his classic one-man shows, here enjoying its world premiere. There is a dual sense of joy in his insightful performance, directed with humour and brio by Joan McCready.

The thespian couple have lived in the United States for many years, teaching theatre studies at the University of Maryland, as well as widely performing and producing their own work. Home, however, remains Northern Ireland, and every homecoming is an occasion for celebration and fond reunions.

Thus, McCready imbues Dickens’s return to Belfast not only with a shared sense of genuine delight but also with the kind of witty observations only an insider could muster.

Dickens arrives primed and ready for a guest appearance at the city’s spectacular new Ulster Hall. His first sighting of its splendid interior takes his breath away. He is fulsome in his praise of its designer WJ Barre, a young architect from Newry, who is threatening the professional supremacy of the revered Charles Lanyon. A lifelong champion of the underdog, Dickens clearly warms to him.

In similar fashion, he proclaims his fondness for Belfast, recalling his first visit in 1858, when he performed at the Victoria Music Hall in May Street. He has arrived hotfoot from Dublin, where, as usual, he appeared to full houses. He likes Dublin very much, he tells us, but he loves Belfast.

He describes its people as 'warm and rough. I like that.' He compares its buildings to those of Florence or classical Rome, judging its setting to be the most beautiful in these islands. With so many of the buildings seen in the early photographs now long demolished, it is difficult for the city’s present day residents to stomach the loss of the architectural gems Dickens wondered at.

The audience looks down on a small, elegant room, comfortably furnished with an easy chair and desk. This is the space allotted to the great man for him to relax, rehearse and prepare for his forthcoming appearance. But relaxation is not a major part of his vocabulary. Give him a platform and he cannot resist the temptation to chat, to perform.

Thus, we are privileged to share private confidences about his unconventional family life. There is his loveless marriage, which produced ten children, the scandalous suspected menage a trois with his pretty young sister-in-law, his depression and his astute perceptions of contemporary Irish politics, north and south.

For all his literary success and public adoration, life for Dickens was not all plain sailing. Behind McCready’s sunny smile, one senses internal conflict. It was vividly described by George Orwell, who wrote that he imagined Dickens thus:

'With a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry - in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.'

We are treated to well-chosen readings from familiar and lesser known works, ranging from A Christmas Carol to 'Doctor Marigold', a darkly sentimental short story. Marigold, whose first name was in honour of the physician who delivered him, is a cheapjack, a huckster, hawking his wares out of the back of a cart.

McCready introduces touches of delicious physical humour and cheeky charm to Marigold’s sales patter, before switching to the heart-wrenching description of the death of his young daughter Sophy.

The dramatic concept of allowing this audience to share in the private reflection of a public figure, to witness the master in rehearsal and eavesdrop on his tiffs with his manager, is a clever one. It sends us away intent on approaching or returning to the beautifully crafted original texts and experiencing more of them.

Dickens at the Ulster Hall was part of the Dickens 2012 Festival. Visit What's On for more information on all Dickens 2012 Festival events.