The Dictionary of Lost Words


Esme Nicoll is described as ‘a wonderful – and highly original – creation’ by the playwright Verity Laughton who adapted the novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams  for the stage. Verity’s task # 1 was to allow Esme to drive the action in the stage play as the protagonist. Given that the story moves from the 1880s through the social changes in Victorian England, the rise of the Suffragettes and World War One, the challenge was to recreate Esme’s small world and the personal challenges she faces against at the background of these significant events. The important link that binds it all is words; their definition, how they are used and how they define  divisions in society.

The stage is set as the scriptorium. There are stacks of shelves divided into pigeon holes, a long table in the centre, where the wordsmiths labour, and a raised area behind, used very effectively to complement the action. For the stage setting, lighting, use of video  and intermittent music credit should given to Jonathon Oxlade, Designer, Trent Suidgeest, Lighting and Max Lyandvert, Composer and Sound Designer.


Sir James Murray, (Christ Pitman) presides over his group of men who decipher the definitions of words sent in by volunteers, check and research quotations, and finally submit the words to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Their brief is to include every word, admittedly an impossible task, but it is not for lack of trying. In this world Harry Nicoll  (Brett Archer) introduces the importance of words and their definitions to his daughter, Esme (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) who, at the beginning of the play is a four year old, sitting under the table, collecting scraps of paper with the lost, or discarded words, which she then stores in an old suitcase aka a treasure chest. As she grows to womanhood her fascination for words continues, with a very funny scene where old Mabel (Ksenja Logos) sitting in the Oxford Covered Market, exposes Esme to some words she would not have heard at home.

Esme grows, is sent to boarding school where she rebels, comes home, to be given responsibilities, limited, in the scriptorium, and negotiates the world outside that rarified environment. 

Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s portrayal of  Esme is pivotal to the play. She succeeds admirably in creating a curious, bright, precocious yet naive girl who grows into a woman who never loses her curiosity or stops asking questions. Throughout the play her interactions with the maid Lizzie (Rachel Burke) were touching on a human level, but also served to show how different were their respective lives. 

The First Act sketches Esme’s earlier life to becoming an adult. The Second Act, with the birth of Esme’s baby, her relationship with Gareth (Raj Labade) and the loss of both from her life make for a more dramatic focus, seen as it is against the background of the suffragette movement and World War One. The novel is long and to bring it all to the stage difficult. I felt that the full impact of some important times in Esme’s life is reduced in trying to cover so much. But there is a great deal to admire and appreciate, especially the fine performances in which actors took on multiple roles, and the very effective use of the stage setting and design.

State Theatre Company South Australia

Dunstan Playhouse  22 September-14 October

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