Olive Copperbottom: A New Musical by Charles Dickens and Penny Ashton – Basement Studio April 18, 2017

The 13th Floor’s Dedee W checks out some theatre…

Last night was the debut performance of ‘Olive Copperbottom: A New Musical by Charles Dickens and Penny Ashton’, and I felt lucky to have witnessed it.

It was a sparkling and lively performance from talented performer Penny Ashton, with another of her brilliant one woman shows. It’s quite a feat to be on stage playing an array of characters – male, female, young and old, with a wide range of voices and accents, singing songs, dancing, or serenading us with a ukulele – for over an hour without a break. But being a seasoned pro, she makes it look easy. 

While her last show Promise and Promiscuity, was based on Jane Austen novels, this one was crafted from classic tales by Charles Dickens. It tells the story of “orphaned hero Olive, and a squalid gaggle of Victorian characters” as they navigate the trials of “pox-ridden London life”.

It’s a rollicking gem of a show, that really takes you on a journey. I found myself getting quite caught up in the adventures of orphan Olive and all the characters she encounters. There’s a great soundtrack, including reworkings of pieces by Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Beethoven, and Gilbert and Sullivan, and original compositions by Robbie Ellis. These complemented the different moods of each scene, and also made for superb accompaniment for some of the songs. In one scene she sings her own words to the tune of Verdi’s La Donna È Mobile, in another, various characters sing along with Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, pushing the show towards a dramatic high point.

There are some great character names, such as – Fanny Purchase, Mrs Sourtart, Mr Goodsort, Mrs MacShortbread and Ivana B Castalot. There’s some excellent wordplay and innuendo throughout the show, and some hilarious ad-libbing to cover any minor slips at this opening night performance. I enjoyed the sneaky references to some of Dickens’ well known titles, and quite a few jokes snuck in referring to more modern humour, e.g. a few well placed digs at Trump.

This one woman show offers many highlights, and Ms Ashton certainly keeps up a good pace throughout, barely pausing for breath between scenes, songs, and rapid character changes. There are a number of fight scenes. One of the best bits is seeing her throttle herself mid-fight, one of the trickiest bits is the technician getting those sound effects timed just right. This is a minor quibble, as most of the kicks and punches were nearly in time with her actions on stage, but by the end they were nailing it.

The songs in this musical were many and varied, from traditional folk songs to more operatic ballads, and Penny was in fine voice, performing with gusto.

As we got more and more drawn into the story, parts of it were so compelling I forgot I was watching this in a small theatre. Perhaps it was the intimacy of a small venue, but the heated argument between Ivana and her husband Dick felt like I was watching a movie.

If you enjoy well crafted clever humour, Charles Dickens references, and lively fast-paced musicals, I would highly recommend this show.

Olive Copperbottom runs until Saturday 22 April at Basement Studio, Auckland

Dedee Wirjapranata