Miriam Margolyes first read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist at the age of 11. As her classmates were shuffling their feet and putting circles around rude-sounding words in the dictionary, something of Dickens’ quintessence must have been passing into her bloodstream. 62 years later it’s still there.
Margolyes’ new show, the cheekily-named The Importance of Being Miriam, blends the Oxford-born, now naturalised Australian actor’s canonical literary passions: Shakespeare, Wilde, Austen. But it is the Dickens that, following on from Margolyes’ celebrated Dickens’ Women, dominates. The centrepiece, from Oliver Twist, is Mr. Bumble’s lascivious seduction of Mrs. Corney, the workhouse matron: “‘Hard-hearted, Mrs. Corney?’ said Mr. Bumble, stirring his tea, and looking up into the matron’s face; ‘are you hard-hearted, Mrs. Corney?’ ‘Dear me!’ exclaimed the matron, ‘what a very curious question from a single man. What can you want to know for, Mr. Bumble?’”
We don’t get to Oliver Twist until after the interval but the wait is worth it: Margolyes, at last, in full, fruity flight, her soft face and clipped, Oxfordian vowels transformed utterly into Dickensian grotesquerie that, nevertheless, remains ineffably human. This is just one of Margolyes’ great gifts as a performer but it is, probably, the one that most marks her out as one of the great actors of her generation (a generation that includes, give or take a few years, Dame Maggie Smith, a friend whom Margolyes brilliantly and hilariously impersonates at one point). ‘I love doing that!’ she gushes as Bumble and Corney vanish, her face defaulting to its wide-eyed benevolence, her voice to its trademark warmth and polish.
The Importance of Being Miriam is, if you hadn’t already guessed, an unashamedly old school entertainment, from Matthew Aberline’s shabby drawing room set with armchair, chaise longue, and teetering stacks of oversized books, to pianist and nominal straight man John Martin’s prodigious tinkling of the ivories and droll badinage with the leading lady. There are times Margolyes feels like the last link to a world almost gone, a world in which the connections between classic literature, music hall, and the British establishment are short and gleam with old-fashioned razzmatazz, a somewhat politically incorrect world held together by revelry in the sound of words and in larger-than-life showbiz anecdotage.
The yarns — about cutting her finger on a tampon-vending machine just before going into an audition for British soap Crossroads, about performing the play Gertrude Stein and a Companion in front of 2,000 naked lesbians at the Womyn’s Festival in Michigan — and the impersonations — Baz Luhrmann, the Queen, Australian customs officers and New York art gallery curators — are, tellingly, performed with equal relish. There’s not much, down to telling a long joke about ‘Jewish Alzheimer’s’, that Margolyes won’t do for a laugh.
The show’s appeal, however, is deepened by other, occasionally less expected threads, for example Margolyes’ newfound embracement of Australia (there are extracts from Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs and a reading of James’ late poem Japanese Maple; works by Henry Lawson and Eric Bogle are set to music by Martin), and reminiscences of her family, including her mother (unable, following a stroke, to remember the names of supermarket items she wants to buy) and Belarusian grandfather (who, extraordinarily, succeeded in keeping his son, Miriam’s father, out of the First World War by — well, I won’t spoil it for you).
Perhaps the only misfire in what is otherwise a master class in classical acting is — somewhat ironically, given the show’s name is derived from Wilde’s play — Margolyes’ rather perfunctory turn as both Lady Bracknell (a part she has never played) and Miss Prism (one she has, for Peter Hall in 2006). There is, curiously, no ‘a handbag?!’ here but, then again, perhaps Margolyes is saving the famous line for when the part does comes her way — surely an inevitability.
There will undoubtedly be those who will wonder why there is a preponderant representation of white heterosexual men in a work by a Jewish lesbian. But, despite the narrowness and relative conservatism of Margolyes’ repertoire, it is difficult not to be swept up in the show’s old-world ebullience, in the enchantment that an 11-year-old found in the pages of Oliver Twist and that remains undiminished by time.