In the summer of 1857, Hans Christian Andersen turned up, almost unannounced, on the doorstep of Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, the home of Charles Dickens and his family.
The visit, prompted by a casual invitation made a decade earlier during the one, brief, previous encounter between two of Europe’s most famous writers, eventually lasted for five weeks.
Afterwards Dickens’ daughter summed up the world’s most renowned children’s storyteller as “a bony bore”, while Dickens himself wrote on the guest room mirror “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family AGES!”
Yet Andersen seemed to regard his stay at Gad’s Hill as a kind of idyll, even though he may have sensed, despite his limited English, that worrying tensions lurked beneath the high-spirited surface of family life.
All this is explored in this new play by Sebastian Barry, a co-production between Out of Joint and Hampstead Theatre. Obviously it is fascinating material, but it is not a very satisfying piece of theatre, its lack of real focus summed up in the unnattractive clutter of Lucy Osborne’s set.
There is also a curious asymmetry in the casting of the two writers. While a bearded and bewigged David Rintoul is a pretty close match for our mental image of Dickens, Andersen is played by Danny Sapani, a black actor whose physical type inclines more to the roly-poly than the bony. Perhaps there’s a point to this, but if so I missed it.
So it is the documentary aspect of the play – particularly explicit at the end, when various characters speak directly to the audience to fill in their subsequent histories – that is the most interesting.
For those unfamiliar with the facts of Dickens domestic life – he imposed a legal separation on his wife Catherine, who had borne him 10 children, while retaining her sister as housekeeper and pursuing a romantic relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan – they are likely to be quite startling.
The rupture came the year after Andersen’s visit, but Barry doesn’t quite succeed in locking the two stories together in a meaningful way. However, he does rather touchingly suggest that Catherine is the one member of the family who achieves a sympathetic connection with Andersen whose gaucheries, including mistaking one of the Dickens sons for a servant, led to her less patient relatives dubbing him a “social blockhead”.
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes.