After 160 years, Dickens returns to Greenwich

by James Haddrell, Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre

I am no different to the millions of other people whose hearts collectively sink at the sight of Easter eggs on sale on the 2nd of January, the gruesome affront of seeing Halloween costumes available in supermarkets from the summer holidays, or the sound of the first tinny recording of a Christmas hit played over the PA system in a shop at the beginning of October. However, I work in an industry where, publicly or not, Christmas is never far from our minds.

The pantomime phenomenon in this country is unrivalled anywhere in the world and at Greenwich Theatre our annual pantomime is the biggest show of the year by far, with more people coming in the seven week run than to anything else that we present. That means that we know the title of the year’s pantomime as much as 18 months ahead, we start working with writer/dame Andrew Pollard on the script in the Spring and we commission set and costumes in the Summer. As I write this, the show is fully cast and we are only six weeks away from starting rehearsal.

However, the pantomime is not the only show in the festive line-up at Greenwich Theatre this year. Joining the programme and playing in our studio theatre is European Arts Company’s version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I spoke to the show’s producer John O’Connor about its development.

“My company is based at The Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone” he said, “and one summer’s day in 2015, the manager called me into her office and asked if I had any ideas for Christmas shows. I found myself saying ‘What about a one-man version of A Christmas Carol as Dickens himself used to do in the 1860s?’  I knew that Dickens had toured all over the world with these readings and been phenomenally successful. The Manager thought it a brilliant idea and half an hour later, I seemed to have committed not only to producing the show but to appearing in it as well.”

The performances, scheduled for 27 & 28 November, will not be the first of their kind in the borough, as Dickens himself came to do a public reading of A Christmas Carol in Greenwich in 1858.

I asked John how he has approached the story, given that it has become so well known to people in so many different versions.

“A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that everyone seems to know without necessarily having read it. It has permeated popular culture so completely that there are versions by The Muppets, The Smurfs and even Doctor Who! However, I thought it would be interesting to go back to Dickens’s own adaptation of it and recreate the effect on an audience of his original performance. By all accounts he was a spellbinding actor.”

So how completely has John recreated the character of Dickens in the performances?

“While I have tried my best to imitate Dickens’ style of dress, the set he toured, the gestures he favoured and even the script that he used, there is one point where I have to draw the line” he said. “Preparation. Dickens prepared for his readings with two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, a glass of sherry with a raw egg beaten into it!”

A Christmas Carol plays at Greenwich Theatre on 27 & 28 November.
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