Reviewed by Sharon O’Connor
David Weston went to Alleyn’s School where he was taught by Michael Croft and became a founder member of the National Youth Theatre. He has been an actor for more than fifty years, and is also the author of books such as Covering McKellen, Covering Shakespeare and latterly the Dodger series of books, which follow the adventures of Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. George MacDonald Fraser had the idea of using a minor character from another novel as a hero in Flashman and, like Weston, Terry Pratchett and James Benmore have also written interpretations of Dodger. In his latest book Weston extends the idea by blending literary characters from other Dickens novels with historical figures and characters from his own imagination, all leavened with his own theatrical experience and expertise
In Dodger Treads the Boards, Jack becomes the servant of Ira Aldridge, the nineteenth century African-American Shakespearean actor who himself trod the boards in Britain and across Europe. Weston’s portrayals of London (including, for sharp-eyed Dulwich historians, several places connected to Edward Alleyn) and its theatre are pertinent and vivid and we see Dodger become an habitué of Covent Garden before he journeys to Russia with Aldridge where he meets Pushkin, Browning, members of the Russian nobility and, poignantly, his long-lost mother. He returns to London before following Aldridge to Ireland where he witnesses the horrors of the historical land clearance evictions with their attendant violence. He is himself imprisoned though Daniel O’Connell, the Irish political leader, gets the charges dropped. While the historical elements are fascinating, the level of detail is sometimes over-generous and can affect the pace a little. In one paragraph alone we come across Sir Joseph Bazalgette, J M W Turner and Charles Dickens. Having said that, the narrative generally develops at a cracking pace with some humorous encounters - look out for a young Queen Victoria - and a surprising amount of pathos
The parallels between Aldridge’s struggle for artistic recognition as a black actor in Victorian London and the working-class Dodger’s attempts to escape his lowly economic status are lightly drawn throughout the novel, though the depictions of Russian serfs and poor Irish tenant farmers are rather less subtle, probably due to their secondary role in the novel. The story culminates in a plot twist which resolves a part of the narrative relating to Dodger’s identity before tying up several plot strands in a satisfying manner while also paving the way for the next instalment.
A pacy read from an entertaining writer.
Dodger Treads the Boards by David Weston is published by Thistle Books. £10.95 375 pps