The sound of Little Nell clattering hurriedly over cobblestones immediately sets the stage by bringing to mind the narrow and dangerous streets of Victorian London. No fewer than 20 performers are called upon to conjure up the Dickensian world of wanderers, ne'er-do-wells, con artists, and kind Samaritans--and each performance is excellent. Tom Courtenay plays the sadistic Quilp, "the ugliest dwarf that could be seen anywhere for a penny" with magnificent sarcastic glee, and Teresa Gallagher's silvery, childlike voice is ideally suited for the role of the angelic Little Nell.
Nell is on her way home to the dusty shop where she and her grandfather live a rather mysterious life. The old man disappears every night--visiting gambling dens with the naive hope of winning a fortune. Instead he sinks deeper and deeper into debt. Enter Daniel Quilp, moneylender, who becomes furious upon learning that the grandfather is a pauper and will never be able to repay his tremendous debt. Quilp seizes the curiosity shop and begins making lecherous overtures to Nell, so she and her grandfather steal away one morning to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But the demonic dwarf is never far behind.
Sound effects are employed judiciously and serve mainly as a springboard for the listener's imagination. The sound of a crying baby is enough to convey the image of crowded lodgings and genteel Victorian poverty, while raucous laughter and high-pitched squawks evoke the barely controlled chaos of an outdoor Punch and Judy show. The dramatization pares Dickens's weighty novel down to two and one-half hours, but does so skillfully, retaining Dickens's wit, marvelous dialogue, and delightful characterizations. (Running time: 155 minutes, 2 cassettes) --Elizabeth Laskey