The shocking thing is that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is probably more relevant now than it was when it was first written.
So says actor John O’Connor who will play more than 20 characters, drawing the audience into a Victorian ghost story about the power of compassion and generosity to transform lives.
The European Arts Company take A Christmas Carol on the road this festive season, with dates including the Old Courtroom in Brighton from December 5-7.
Inspired by Dickens’s own charitable work, the 2019 tour is in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital, reflecting the heart-warming message of Scrooge’s philanthropic transformation in this perfect Christmas story, John says.
“It is an incredible story, and it is an important story. We have had nine years of austerity. We tend to think of poverty being a 19th-century thing, but the children’s charity Barnardo’s estimates that there are four million children living in the UK now in 2019 in poverty.
“The story was actually written as Dickens’ reaction to a report about child labour which enraged him. He was going to write a pamphlet, but he wrote his thoughts instead in story form as A Christmas Carol, and so many of the themes are just so relevant now – the idea that profit is not the only thing in life, that we have a responsibility to others and that Christmas is a time of community and love and family.
“In this strange period we are going through of angst and conflict, all those messages are so important.”
John’s idea is that audiences will experience A Christmas Carol as Dickens himself performed it more than 150 years ago.
He was the first writer to publicly act out his own work and, in doing so, invented a new genre of performance, John says.
Working with the script Dickens used, John will take his audience from Dickens’ own warm study to Scrooge’s freezing house and the Cratchits’ welcoming dinner table. Sets by Tom Paris are based on a combination of Dickens’ travelling cases and the warmth of his London sitting room.
“I think A Christmas Carol has got an emotion unlike any other of his works. He wrote it from a standpoint of rage, but there is a lot of love in there we well, and the story has emotions that really connect with the audience.
“I do it as Dickens did it. He presented it all over Britain and America. It directly addresses the audience. It almost becomes like a conversation with the audience. They are left thinking that they have time to think about all these things. It is an extraordinary story. It is timeless, and like all great classics, it has been endlessly adapted.
“Dickens’ readings were advertised as public readings, but Dickens always wanted to be an actor and very nearly did become an actor. He was constantly hankering after the footlights, and this was his way of combining acting with direct communication with the audience. Writing is a lonely business. He was writing books that were celebrated the world over, but he was constantly on his own writing to deadline. And so for his readings, he acted them out, and before he went on tour, he would invite his friends around to give them a private performance. He would listen to their comments.
“And then it’s fascinating to see how Dickens communicated it so directly to his audiences in public performances.
“He made them laugh and cry in equal measure, taking them on a magical journey and imparting the true spirit of Christmas. The show is a chance for audiences to feel what that was like. It’s a joy to do and we will have some fun along the way.”
John lives in Rochester where Dickens grew up and set many of his stories including Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.