A Christmas Carol – the Director’s Preview

Director Mark Ireson introduces Neil Bartlett’s re-imagining of the Christmas classic, which opens on Thursday 12 December for 10 performances over 2 weeks.

What inspired you to direct this show?

I’ve always enjoyed the story, and the prospect of seeing the huge cast of vital characters and its powerful moral message on stage is very appealing as a director. However, many of the stage adaptations were too “chocolate boxy” for my taste, in danger of becoming an exercise in large cast logistics while bowdlerising the ghost story and social commentary at the story’s core.

What struck me first about Neil Bartlett’s adaptation was his decision to only use Dickens’ own words. It’s a measure of Dickens’ skill as a writer that we remember not only Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, the three ghosts and so many others, but also his vivid descriptions of the bitter winter and the grinding poverty. I can’t put it any better than Bartlett, writing in the introduction:

… his words don’t describe, they enact. When London freezes, the prose stamps and chatters; when Scrooge is in his counting house, the words are as cramped as his miserable clerks; when he enters his redemptive second childhood, it gibbers and capers and gurgles like an infant.

His use of the text as soundtrack, as setting, as rhythm, as atmosphere, and not just as dialogue and narrative, give a distinct and electric character to the whole piece, which the cast have embraced with gusto.

The second crucial decision was imposed on Neil Bartlett; a small budget meant a cast of just eight, with more than 70 parts between them. As so often in theatre, necessity made for a great deal of creativity, and we too have found the joy of a tight ensemble of versatile actors.

No spoilers, but what can the audience expect to experience?

In keeping with the writing style, this production leaves behind the gilt and velvet of “traditional” stagings to cut through to the core of Dickens’s story. But don’t worry, just because the staging is minimal doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on all the well-known characters and scenes. There are ghosts – plenty of them, but not as you may have imagined them before – as well as chimes and carols, parties and poverty, Tiny Tim and a prize-winning turkey. And plenty of “Bah! Humbug!”

Your ensemble cast play a multitude of roles – can you tell us more?

It’s a great show for actors, giving them the opportunity to create a huge variety of roles I asked them for their thoughts.

Elena Markham: “The play is an ensemble piece and we all play multiple roles with incredibly quick changes, so I range from playing a 5 year old to being dead(!), with many characters in between. Mark’s directorial style is a collegiate one; we’re all invited to contribute and collaborate in the creative process. We’re having an enormous amount of fun in rehearsals and I suspect you’ll see that in the performances.”

Justin Bikram (playing Scrooge): “In this immersive and “out of the box” Brechtian-style interpretation of A Christmas Carol, the sentiment behind Dickens’ social commentary remains as relevant today as it was in 1843.  Any actor that performs the archetypal role of Ebenezer Scrooge is in for an intense rollercoaster of a ride as the character undergoes the extreme emotional polarities involved in his transformation. Above all – it’s about conjuring the spirit of Christmas to entertain our local community, and the production will pay homage to Dickens, as the man who really did invent Christmas as we know it. It’s an honour to be a performer in my favourite Christmas story!”

Foodbank collections – a note from director Mark Ireson

“Sadly, many of the social conditions Dickens wanted to highlight in A Christmas Carol still exist today in our increasingly unequal society. None is more worrying than the rise in poverty caused by the erosion of the safety nets that should be the hallmark of a civilised society.

For this reason, we will be holding a cash collection after each performance in aid of Norwood and Brixton Foodbank.

As well as providing emergency food to those in crisis in our local area, the Foodbank provides support and advice to help people find long-term solutions to their problems. At this time of year, their clothing section is particularly looking for donations of warm winter coats.”

Norwood and Brixton Foodbank is a registered charity, number 1151274. You can also donate direct to the Foodbank’s Christmas collection. Text DINNER 5 to 70085 to donate £5 or DINNER 10 to 70085 to donate £10. This costs £5 or £10 plus a standard rate message.

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A Christmas Carol runs Thursday 12 – Sunday 15 and and Tuesday 17 – Saturday 21 December at the Old Fire Station. Tickets for this show are already sold out, but it may be worth coming along to the theatre on the night for possible returns, or (if you are a member) keep an eye on the SLT Members’ Group Facebook page.

Rehearsal images by Jon Schick