It is a truth universally acknowledged that a comedienne in possession of a sharp wit must be in want of a good story and stage to tell it on.

So it is for Penny Ashton, poet and marriage celebrant as well as funny-woman, who has spent, on and off, four years cavorting around the world with her show Promise and Promiscuity. A one-woman play, it pokes ever so polite fun at the stories of Jane Austen - or at least the world they were set in.

Now Ashton's turning her attention to another of England's great writers and it's likely to be a good deal saucier. She's mining Charles Dickens' books for their comic potential for the one-woman musical, Olive Copperbottom.

Olive is an orphan raised among a "squalid gaggle" of Victorian characters - toffs, tarts, various waifs and strays - in pox-ridden London when she runs away to join the travelling Hammington Players theatrical group. There's songs, courtesy of Ashton's musical collaborator Robbie Ellis, and humour which makes good use of Dickens' propensity for outrageously named characters.


"It's a new story but one that quotes from Dickens work but he's more challenging than Austen to quote from in large chunks," Ashton explains, pointing out that Austen wrote just five novels compared with Dickens' 41 (and many more if you count short story collections).

"People who know Dickens can enjoy spotting the quotes; others can just sit back and enjoy a rollicking story."

As with Promise and Promiscuity, Ashton's done a fair amount of reading - mainly Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and A Christmas Carol - and a lot of watching more recent TV adaptations. It's taken the better part of a year to pull her ideas for Olive Copperbottom together and she's now well into rehearsals with director Ben Crowder.

"He's bloody great at helping me to make the sort of quick-fire character transitions you need to make when you're dealing with playing 15 characters by yourself . . . "

Swapping Austen for Dickens is a chance for Ashton to add to her repertoire while sticking with a formula that's won her fans from Stewart Island to Saskatchewan in Canada - and many places in between - for about 200 performances in theatres, historic halls and front rooms.

But she acknowledges none of this would be possible if we hadn't had moved on from the mores and morals of Georgian and Victorian England. For starters, had she been alive in Jane Austen's day she wouldn't have even been able to leave her house without a male escort.

"Let alone travel all over the world . . . and then when you get to Dickens' world, well let's just say I quite like sanitary products and not having to clean other people's fireplaces out in the dead of winter.

"It might have been all right if you were upper class but there would have been no guarantee of that and anything else would have been just awful. I'm very glad I'm alive now."

Ashton takes Olive Copperbottom from Auckland to Wellington, where it's part of the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, and then for its first overseas performances.

What: Olive Copperbottom
Where & when: Basement Theatre, April 18 - 22