IN 1858, Charles Dickens came to Yorkshire to give public readings of A Christmas Carol, including in York on September 10 that year.
From next Tuesday to Saturday, in the De Grey Rooms Ballroom, next to York Theatre Royal, John O’Connor invites you to “experience what it must have been like to have been in the audience” as he transforms himself into Mr Dickens to present a heart-warming evening with the author himself, in the spirit of Christmas past, present and future.
“It’s one of the richest stories in English literature,” says John, whose one-man show will be staged by the European Arts Company at 7.45pm nightly. “Like all great works of art, it’s infinitely adaptable and has never fallen out of fashion.
“Its themes of loneliness, compassion, forgiveness, social inequality, money, family and redemption are as relevant today as in 1843 when it was written. As soon as the story was published, several stage versions appeared on the London stage and this tradition has continued to the present day. From Doctor Who to The Muppets, the story is constantly being reinterpreted for new audiences in interesting ways.”
What makes O’Connor’s performance distinctive amid the annual glut of A Christmas Carol shows? “Charles Dickens came to York and gave a public performance of A Christmas Carol on September 10 1858. What must it have been like to have been in the audience 161 years ago? By all accounts, Dickens completely captivated everyone lucky enough to see him. In this show, we try and recreate that experience for the audience,” says John.
“Our production takes place in the De Grey Rooms, a beautiful Georgian ballroom that provides the perfect backdrop. Many adaptations tend to overplay the sentimental side of A Christmas Carol, but it’s also a very dark story written as a cry of anger against the Poor Laws, which unjustly punished the dispossessed of society, especially children, through the workhouse system.
“It’s fascinating to hear Dickens balance the sentimental with the fantastical and the political to create an incredibly powerful piece of theatre.”
Although we tend to think of poverty as being a 19th-century problem, the charity Barnardo’s estimates that more than three million children live in poverty in Britain today.
“This is why we’re raising money for the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity to help transform the lives of modern-day Tiny Tims this Christmas.,” says John. “Our show is an authentic glimpse into the heart of the story, in a gorgeous atmospheric setting, and in aid of a good cause.”
By O’Connor taking on the guise of Charles Dickens, his audience receives the story directly from the author himself. “At its best, the show is like a conversation with the author,” he says. “We use Dickens’s original public-reading script, so it’s fascinating to see what he highlights in the telling of it and how he takes us on Scrooge’s redemptive journey.”
Unlike Dickens, however, Euroepan Arts Company’s production has the benefit of modern theatre techniques, such as lighting, sound effects and video projections, to take the audience on a transformative trip.
“It’s a very emotional journey and the audience laughs and cries along with the author himself,” says John, who will be dressed in Dickens mode and plays all the characters.
“I’ve researched and studied the way Dickens performed it and use some of these techniques in the show,” he says. “However, there are also some authentic parts of Dickens’s performance that I’ve chosen to leave out.
“For example, how he prepared for a reading: 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!”
European Arts Company presents John O’Connor in A Christmas Carol, De Grey Rooms Ballroom, York Theatre Royal, York, December 17 to 21, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk