Pocketful of dreams;Travel;England;Rochester

5th February 1999 at 00:00
At the Charles Dickens Centre in Rochester, the great writer dozes while his characters entertain Chris Fautley and other visitors

It can't be easy getting an audio visual presentation right. Anything longer than three minutes and the boredom factor can soon set in.

But at the Charles Dickens Centre at Rochester the audio visuals, in the form of "Dickens' Dream", are the star of the show, a show overflowing with entertainers.

We are invited into the author's study to find the great man dozing at his desk. He begins to dream about his literary career: of what value is it to anybody? Shortly, some of his greatest characters visit his dream, cleverly brought to life in a projection on the enormous bookcase behind him. Uriah Heep, Betsy Trotwood, Mr Pickwick...all are there. Oliver Twist and Mr Micawber materialise to sing his praises, while some of the villains of his works berate and torment him. But in the end good prevails and he is persuaded that he is indeed one of our greatest writers and need be troubled no longer.

It's mesmerising - a view shared by many of the children from St Nicholas' and St John's Church of England Primary School at Kingsdown, Kent. I'm not sure what was more amazing: the Dream or the fact that here was a 10-minute show that held its audience of 10 and 11-year-olds totally spellbound.

Rochester itself starred in Great Expectations and The Pickwick Papers, and became the Cloisterham of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Charles Dickens Centre can be found in the Elizabethan Eastgate House which appeared as Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers, and is where characters and scenes from his stories are brought to life.

Clever lighting ensures that the atmosphere of the set piece tableaux is spot-on; they hammer home the grim sordidness and squalor that Dickens so compellingly portrayed. Goodies, baddies, heros and villains all live here. You almost feel yourself shivering as you watch Scrooge lamenting his lot as he cowers over a flickering candle, to be confronted by the holographic ghost of Jacob Marley and the Spirits of Christmas Past and Present.

Mood and just a taste of menace are the keys to success here, and both have been captured in just the right quantity. Fagin's Den is superb, where we are party to Fagin and the Artful Dodger debating who will teach Oliver how to pick pockets. Meanwhile the London slum, "Tom-all-Alones", and the burial ground of Lady Dedlock's lover are not perhaps for the faint hearted.

The best part, however, is all too easy to miss. Climbing to the first floor of the building, you suddenly find yourself among the roofs and chimneys of London tenements. (Look out for the resident emptying something very unsavoury-looking from the window above you.) And here a murder is committed; we hear shouting and screams and, silhouetted at a window, we witness Bill Sikes murdering Nancy.

This magnificent place is extremely rich in Victorian material. Information panels at each set- piece expand the theme beyond its Dickensian concept. Wackford Squeers's classroom at Dotheboys Hall, cleverly re-created using overhead projections, is taken as a cue to examine Victorian education in greater detail. Similarly, the ultimate downfall of Bill Sikes and Fagin is the signal to find out more about the Victorian penal system and prisons.

For St Nicholas' and St John's School, this was a first visit. Year 6 teacher Debbie Belsher said that while her pupils had been studying Oliver Twist, she also found the exhibition valuable for studying the Victorians and for the literacy hour. "I liked it very much. The pupils liked the frightening bits and Dickens' Dream. It was short and held their attention well," she said, adding that more stuff like the Dream would make the centre even better.

Pupils Robert and Amy both thought the Dream was the highlight. "It has helped our work with the Victorians," said Robert. Cracking stuff; just like, to borrow a quote from Mr Grewgious in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, "looking down the throat of old time".


Charles Dickens Centre, High Street, Rochester, Kent ME1 1EW. Tel: 01634 844176. Admission: pound;2.50 per child, pound;2 for groups of 20 or more. Open daily from 10.00am * More than a dozen buildings in Rochester feature in Dickens' stories. Some merit a visit in their own right, and a complete Dickens-themed day can be planned with little difficulty.

Both Rochester Castle and the Cathedral appear in 'The Pickwick Papers' and 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood', while Restoration House, (as Satis House), the buildings at 150-154 High Street, (as Uncle Pumblechook's shop), and the Guildhall all starred in 'Great Expectations'.

* More information about the city from the Tourist Information Centre: 01634 72777

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